Muslim firebrands in the secular West need to be reminded that free speech and the right to offend are two of the West’s most cherished liberties. Unfortunately, both in Australia and overseas, our leaders aren’t delivering that message
Is the debate about the world-wide Muslim protests over, and can Western nations now be comforted by the heavy concentration of such protests in Muslim countries and, in Australia (and possibly other countries too), by the preparedness of leaders of Islamic communities to cooperate with the police in persuading their members not to have a second go? Equally important, how do we assess the response of Western governments to the protests and subsequent developments?
As to the concentration of protests in Muslim countries, it should not be overlooked that the bloody and destructive on-going conflict between the differing interpreters of the Islamic religion also involves a continuing attack on Christian and Jewish groups. This is leading to their increasing emigration from countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Yet the only substantive policy reaction to such attacks is by Israeli leaders.
Regarding the Australian protests, in her address to the United Nations, Prime Minister Gillard condemned the violence but stressed:
Denigration of religious beliefs is never acceptable. Australia seeks to be an example of freedom for all faiths. However our tolerance must never extend to tolerating religious hatred and incitement to violence, whether these lead to attacks against members of religious minorities or diplomats.
This falls well short of a serious response to the problems raised by some religions and most importantly by the Muslim religion. Any rejection of “denigration” (or slandering, besmirching or whatever) cannot rule out sensible criticism of part or whole of the stated objectives of some religions. In some Western societies the so-called religion of Scientology is banned and, in the case of the mainstream Islamic religion, some parts are already explicitly rejected, such as sharia law, genital mutilation and (naturally) the use of violence. The basis of such an approach is that the religion, or the particular part rejected, are judged as contrary to the generally accepted culture of the country.
But the question of acceptability is an ongoing one that needs addressing, not dodging. Our political leaders should carefully explain to our communities that we have Judeo-Christian societies where the state rules, not the church. And they should not accept without rebuttal or comment the denigrations by some Islamic clerics of our religions and democratic structures, and of our political leaders (including, as was clear during the recent protests, of the President of the United States). The failure to make those needed rebuttals reflects badly on political leaders in Australia and overseas and bodes ill for the future.
Indeed, the initial attempt by the US administration to portray the murder of its ambassador to Libyan as part of a spontaneous protest is a disgrace to American society and a much-to-be-regretted action from our principal ally. The Obama Administration has now acknowledged that it was an attack planned by a radical Islamic group and, from a portrayal on Arab TV, it appears the ambassador’s body was dragged down a Benghazi street. It also seems likely that this and other protests in the Middle East were organised by radical groups to celebrate the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 and that the film made in the US and portraying Mohammed was used as an excuse for that.
Although President Obama has now stated that the US will attempt to catch the murderers, the handling of the incident illustrates the failure of Obama since his inauguration to recognise the extent of extremist Islamic groups’s challenge. While he has responded to the use of violence in Afghanistan and has succeeded in killing bin Laden, neither his administration nor our own leaders have attempted to deal with the problem of what should be regarded as unacceptable from a culture that has fundamental differences to ours.
In Australia’s case the reaction by Immigration Minister Bowen to the visa application by Dutch politician Geert Wilders is similarly worrying. Bowen, whose electorate includes Muslim communities, significantly delayed the consideration of the application, held a press conference and wrote an article “explaining” his handling of the matter. The article is most disturbing in that it not only dismisses Wilders “and those who agree with him” as “very simply wrong in their beliefs” but claims that the Sydney protesters “do not represent Islam or multi-culturalism. They represent thuggery”.
In reality, the protests were almost certainly prompted by religious leaders and it would be surprising if Bowen and the government (which must have considered the application) were not made aware of this by security agencies. By contrast with his handling of Wilders’ visa application, Bowen readily granted a visa to Mustafa, who is a leading member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir group which, while claiming to be non-violent, advocates the complete adoption of an Islamic (caliphate) form of government.
As an aside, while Wilders has made strong anti-Islamic statements, he is an elected member of the Dutch Parliament and heads a small group in that national assembly. He has been described to me by a Dutch colleague as not from the “far-right” but as heading a group on the left.
It might be noted that, following the Muslim protests in Australia, Bill Paterson, our ambassador for counter-terrorism, was quoted in The Australian as warning that “the elimination of bin Laden has not drawn a line under the terrorism decade” and that “we face an enduring challenge” that “will continue to present substantial security/police challenges regionally and internationally over an extended period”. This is, of course, pertinent to Australia, where a number of small groups with Islamic links have been identified as planning terrorist attacks, and the government must be aware of it.
It also reinforces the public address made just before the protests by David Irvine, the head of ASIO, which pointed out that “ASIO is currently managing around 200 active counter-terrorism investigations of various urgency and significance … we continue to have in Australia people who believe in violence as a means to fulfil perceived religious obligations. They reject outright Australia’s right to democratic self-governance and our separation of church from state. They also reject Australia exercising its influence in Muslim-majority societies overseas. Some aspire to establish a caliphate – a transnational Islamic state – governed strictly according to sharia law.”
One wonders whether the government in Canberra has bothered to be briefed by ASIO and its counter-terrorism ambassador, or even whether our leaders are aware of the pamphlet being distributed to those travelling on Melbourne trams. This pamphlet extols the virtues of Muhammad and suggests “you should know this man” and “learn the basics” about his mission of mercy, his forgiveness and his other virtues. Indeed, according to the pamphlet Muhammed was the ideal husband who “always helped with the housework and would at times mend his clothes, repair his shoes and sweep the floor. He would milk, protect and feed his animals and do household chores”.
I can scarcely wait for his Australian successor to lead his party into power, perhaps from Minister Bowen’s electorate.
Des Moore, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the director of the Institute for Private Enterprise, a life member of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and attendee at the Royal College of Defence Studies, London