A Muslim perspective on Racial Discrimination Act amendments

The rise of Islamophobia in Australia has left Muslims vulnerable as anti-discrimination laws cover racial but not religious vilification. AAP/Dean Lewins

The markers of identification of communities have clearly moved from just race, colour and national or ethnic origin to include religion. In the case of Muslims, their faith and culture and all that it entails. Although religious discrimination was not, per se, made unlawful by the Racial Discrimination Act, it prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “ethnic origin”. The twist in safeguarding Muslims under this act comes from the fact that Australia is yet to decide whether Muslims constitute a group with a common ethnic origin.

With most Muslims being non-white, Islamophobia gets merged with racism. Since Muslims are not a race but followers of a universal faith across the racial and language divide, it does not help to describe attacks on them as “racist attacks”. Doing so dilutes the specific concerns of Muslims living in a non-Muslim majority country with more general issues of race and ethnicity.

“Cultural racism”, in which religion is an important element, is real and must be accorded the attention it deserves. It is critical, then, to add “religious vilification” to the offences that the amended RDA will prohibit.

‘White Australia’ was once seen as reasonable

The exposure draft of amendments takes the position that whether an act vilifies or intimidates will:

…be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community.

This is disturbing. Why? One only needs to recall the “White Australia” policy, which many an “ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community” accepted for a long time.

That Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism is increasing has been documented by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion. If acts of anti-Muslim racism are to be judged only by the standard of an ordinary reasonable member of the community and not “by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community”, this does not bode well for Muslims.

‘White Australia’ restrictions on migration were once widely thought to be reasonable. Protection from discrimination should reflect the changes since then. Wikimedia Commons/National Archives, CC BY

The exposure draft seems to go overboard in protecting free speech by way of a weakened version of current provisions. The exempted words, sounds, images or writing will no longer have to be “a fair and accurate report” as the act currently requires. Nor must they be based on “genuine belief held by the person making the comment”. It is, in effect, a carte blanche to vilify.

In this context, consider a German opera house production of a Mozart opera that included a scene depicting the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad. Many in the political and cultural arena defended this depiction, which was not part of the original piece but added by the director, as an expression of artistic freedom. But it was yet another example of pushing boundaries to deliberately provoke hatred by abusing freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression with few or no adequate safeguards to protect religious beliefs needs to be revisited. If not, the danger of escalating and more provocative portrayals is very real.

The limitations of liberty

With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself … while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men… Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty … Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.

These words of Abraham Lincoln resonate strongly with Muslims who face the real prospect of experiencing more spewing of hatred toward them and their religion – all in the name of freedom of expression.

We earnestly hope that “the Emperor has no clothes” will not prove an apt metaphor for anti-discrimination legislation in Australia. The time to make the necessary changes for striking the right balance between freedom of expression and prevention of religious and racial discrimination is now, not later. Together, the community and the government need to get this right so Australia can be a beacon of hope in a world too eager at times to make fellow human beings victims of their own limitless freedom.

Perhaps we should all recall the age-old wisdom: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you”.


This article was co-authored by Mahjabeen Ahmad, an Australia-based independent researcher and policy advocate who was formerly a professor of business administration at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The key area of her interest is issues confronting Muslims living in the West.