In October 2006 the Sydney Imam, Sheik Taj el-Din al-Hilali, delivered a Ramadam sermon in which he excused the convicted gang rapist, Bilal Skaf, declaring him innocent. Hilaly said that the true responsibility for such crimes lay with women, those who did not keep themselves veiled and, preferably, hidden away from the public eye.
Throughout the ensuing uproar, the imam’s supporters claimed that his remarks had been taken out of context. I wondered whether this was true, so I googled for the transcript, found it, read it, and was horrified.
Hilaly had compared women to cat meat. If such meat was left uncovered and the cat came along and ate it, whose fault was it, the cat’s or the uncovered meat’s?
It had never before occurred to me that someone in Australia, a community leader, a teacher commanding moral authority would be ‘allowed’ to say such things. Surely we had anti-discrimination laws; were they not in effect here? I was distressed. I couldn’t sleep. I dreaded to imagine what the victims and their families would be going through – the sheik and his cat meat were top of the news for days, so there would be little chance of escape.
Now that the national spotlight was on Hilaly it became apparent that he was in the habit of making controversial comments. These included assertions that the Holocaust was exaggerated, Muslims had more right to Australia than dishonest ‘convicts’, and 9/11 was God’s work against oppressors.
I turned to the BBC’s online coverage of the story and worked through hundreds of comments from members of the public. These were disappointing. Many of Hilaly’s supporters claimed that, due to that most cherished of liberties, free speech, the imam had a right to say these things and therefore should not be criticised. There was a profound, almost wilful misunderstanding here. Fortunately there were plenty on board to point out the bleeding obvious, that free speech is a two-way street, and Hilaly had set himself up for as much criticism as could be mustered.
Those demanding free speech — true free speech, as a two-way discourse — won me over. I realised that no matter how much we might loathe Hilaly’s words, if we really want to live in a society where we can be aware of unpalatable points of view, discuss them and explain why they are wrong, we must let him speak.
Which brings us to recent events.
You’d have to be living in an underground bunker to be unaware of the riots, violence and murders perpetrated in various parts of the world over the past couple of weeks, all because of a sordid, low-grade film, ‘Innocence of Muslims’. The death toll, as I write, has reached 49. Of concern, too, is the fact that these events will play into the hands of certain Australian shock-jocks, and right-wing extremists such as Geert Wilders, currently awaiting visa approval for a visit to Australia. Moderate Muslims are well aware of this; we’ve seen a deluge of commentary, much of it highlighting the non-violent nature of the greater Muslim community, some of it focused on attempts to understand the Sydney demonstrators in particular. We’ve heard differing viewpoints, the most popular being that it’s not ‘about the film’, but more an expression of disempowered Muslim youth, lacking identity, frustrated with perceived western contempt and an undeniable element of local racism.
Apart from the patronising tone some of these analyses, they do not quite add up. If western contempt were the main problem, we would be witnessing demonstrations against continuing Israeli incursions into Palestinian lands, we’d find Muslims marching in the streets against questionable US foreign policy, we’d hear much greater condemnation every time Sunnis murder scores of Shiites, or Shiites murder Sunnis, acts which now occur with such depressing regularity that they struggle for the status of ‘newsworthy’. Where are the public protests over the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrian men, women and children, victims of sectarian violence at the hands of their own government? Where are the wide-scale demonstrations when shocking images like those that came out of Abu Ghraib are splashed across newspapers worldwide?
Instead, such outrage is reserved for a novel, a set of cartoons, or for a puerile and amateurish video ridiculing a religious military leader who died in the late seventh century.
Add to that the nature of many of the placards, and we should conclude that the protests were, to at least some degree, a result of religious offence, and that it was, indeed, ‘about the film’.