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Fair play and civility in interreligious relations

By Gary Bouma - posted Friday, 21 January 2005

All societies regulate relationships between significant sub-units of their society be they families, corporations, productive units or religious groups. The degree of force used in and obtrusiveness of this regulation ranges from informal and barely noticeable sanctions, through legal and administrative means, to draconian repressive measures. In addition, religious groups with the power to do so often impose their views and ethics on those who do not share them. History is littered with examples of religious groups forcing conformity to their morals, from the Acts of Conformity in England, through the Spanish Inquisition, to limits placed on fertility control technology. Religious anti-vilification legislation is one tool used by a society to regulate interreligious relations in such way as to ensure social harmony and cohesion by promoting fair play and civility.

The language we use has power to define others, to demean, to build up, to question and condemn, or to welcome and engage. The language used by those who are convicted of vilification tends to be negative, pejorative and often inaccurate. In Victoria vilification has taken the form of ascribing to Muslims in Australia, patterns of belief and practice that may characterise Muslims elsewhere, but for which not only is there no evidence, but for which the evidence leads to quite the opposite conclusion. In so doing, those convicted were inciting Australians to be fearful of other Australians, often their neighbours, thereby tearing the social fabric and reducing social cohesion. In a similar case in the Canadian province of Ontario a criminal conviction was imposed and sustained through subsequent appeals.

Some Christians argue that they must be free to say what they think whenever and wherever they wish. However, no person or group enjoys such a freedom in Australia, or any other society, including the United States where the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech to her citizens. I am not free to yell “fire” in a cinema when there is no fire. I am not free to use disparaging and stereotyped language about gender and ethnic groups. I am not free to say untrue and hurtful things about my neighbour. All societies and groups limit the range of speech that will be tolerated.


The differences between religious groups are real and not to be either discounted or trivialised by reference to the matters of agreement. These real differences lead necessarily to questions of how to relate. Is it necessary to convert all to the one perspective? Is it possible to live with and acknowledge difference without having to overcome it? Is it possible to even see the differences as part of the given structure of creation and not of human fallibility? Each of these positions can be found within most religious groups of any size or duration. Peaceable coexistence among all groups including religious groups is desirable for social cohesion, harmony and productivity. Religious diversity is managed socially to promote sustainability of a society and culture.

From this social perspective religious anti-vilification legislation is designed to promote fair play and healthy competition among religious groups. Australia and other nations have rules regulating competition among business groups ensuring fair play. I can see no reason why these should not also apply to religious groups. It is not permitted to be false in advertising, to say misleading things about your competition’s products, nor to malign the character of your competition. Why should religious organisations be exempt from regulations such as these? Yes some seem to think that they have rights that exceed those of other organisations and community groups. This may reflect historical periods when they did, but that is not the case now, certainly not in most Western liberal democracies and a large number of other states.

Finally, civility in language and public discourse is simply good manners. Yes too much civility can crush legitimate protest and prophetic critique. That is not what we observe in this case involving negative, hurtful, misleading and untrue comments made by representatives of a Christian group about Australian Muslims. Studies of effective mission indicate that uncivil, disrespectful approaches do not work and have, not surprisingly, a negative effect. Why is it that some religious leaders, always a minority, but found within many religious groups, not just among Christian and Muslim hard-line groups insist on taking so unpalatable, unproductive and unsustainable an approach to what they call mission, evangelism, or outreach? Neither Jesus nor the Prophet Mohammed behaved in such a way.

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About the Author

Gary Bouma is Professor of Sociology at Monash University, associate priest of St Dunstan's Anglican Church, Camberwell, and vice-chairman of The World Conference of Religions for Peace, Australia. He appeared as a witness for the Islamic Council of Victoria in their case against Catch The Fire Ministries.

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