In this submission will explore prejudice as a phenomenon that impinges on religious freedom. For me religious freedom includes the freedom to follow a religion, alter the form that religion takes, or reject religion altogether. We should be free to practice or not practice religion as part of our own way-of-life. The freedom to live my own way-of-life limits your ability to interfere with my life and vice-versa.
It is worth noting that interference and mere annoyance are distinct things. Me living my life in a way that is different to yours or even challenging to your moral world-view cannot rightly be construed as interfering in your life. It may be more accurate to say that you need to be a bit more resilient and have more confidence in your own way-of-life.
Prejudice however can interfere with our lives and livelihoods. It has proved useful to define distinct forms of prejudice and so we have terms such as classism, sexism and racism. My purpose here is to say that it would be useful to define 'creedism' as a form of prejudice directed at the practitioners of any and all forms of religion or its lack. In examining this I will discuss the case of Islamophobia.
I definitely think that prejudice towards Muslims exists and that this prejudice is a problem for Australian society. However many of those who use the term Islamophobia (for the purpose of identifying and condemning this prejudice) liken it to a form of racism. This is only accurate if the holder of Islamophobic views mistakenly believes Muslims to be an ethno-religious group. Many do make this mistake but there are also others who acknowledge that Islam is a world religion to which anyone can ascribe. In saying this they can then deny that they are racist. However this is misdirection because they can still be expressing prejudiced views. Such prejudice is distinct from academic criticism because it involves distorting the truth with the intent of vilifying Muslims. The worst lie is of course the belief that all Muslims are terrorists, however there are many other distortions underpinning this, such as...
- Regarding Islam as a unified and monolithic force, without regard to the existence of different branches, schools or denominations, and inventing a caricature of Islam that combines all the more problematic aspects of each of these.
- Selectively quoting Islamic texts without acknowledging the diverse and changing ways in which Muslims interpret and apply those words in the world of everyday experience. Any ancient religious text can be worrying if removed from the context of its present-day practice.
- Citing the negative actions of elites and institutions associated with Islam (such as clerical or monarchical regimes) in the past or present and making all these the responsibility of every Muslim regardless of personal circumstances.
- Referring to particular cultural practices (now deemed barbaric) as Islamic even if they predate Islam and simply happen to occur in some Muslim-majority areas.
A quick consideration of these and other distortions shows how they can promote fear and thus endanger the Muslim minority in Australia. Furthermore some reflection will show that these sorts of distortions can be applied to any and all religions. As an agnostic I'm in contact with many other agnostics and atheists and at times have come across similar distortions applied to Christians. In this sense Christians may also be subject to what I call 'creedism' and thus we can see that religious prejudice can be a problem for anyone.
Distortions can sometimes be taken to ridiculous degrees and I have had arguments with the odd militant atheist who has declared that 'all religion is bad' or even 'all bad things come from religion'. They will twist the facts greatly to preserve this notion. I have even encountered the claim that 'Stalinism was a religion because it was a cult-of-personality'. Words like 'cult' and 'doctrine' all have religious origins but any realistic person understands that word usage changes over time (my use of the word 'creed' is an old yet still-known variation on an even older theological usage). A 'cult-of-personality' is not necessarily religious any more than a 'marriage' is necessarily that of a monogamous heterosexual couple intent on having children.
Lies are an affront to those who are misrepresented by them as well as to anyone dedicated to truth. However there are degrees of impact which very much depend on who one is and what context one is operating within. A handful of militant atheists seeking to vilify the majority of Australians who identify as religious will have scant impact on them. In contrast, an unholy alliance of ultra-nationalists, fundamentalist Christians, opportunist politicians and their ignorant dupes can do much harm to our small Muslim community. Some are more at risk than others and it is time that a degree of chivalry - the strong defending the weak - was restored to Australian civic life.
In a liberal-democracy like Australia one hopes that the best antidote to speech is better speech. The distortions I refer to should be readily exposed and challenged by average citizens in large numbers and from all walks-of-life. However I am far from confident that this is always the case. Our civic life seems lacking and because of that legal action sometimes becomes necessary. Religious persons and groups should have access to the law for purposes of defending themselves from religious vilification. This is the case presently and it will be for your Review to determine if any of these legal protections need to be bolstered or made more consistent. There is a distinction I want to make, however, between religion and politics.
Various religions in a secular society are supposed to co-exist. In contrast political organizations in a pluralistic society are supposed to compete for power and influence. Different standards should apply to any political party or lobby group even if it purports to promote religious (or indeed anti-religious) objectives. A political organization formed to represent religious interests has moved from the religious realm of co-existence to the political realm of competition and must expect scrutiny, criticism and a smaller degree of protection than should be given to religious practitioners overall.
I wish there was more leadership coming from our political elites and I refer once more to chivalry. If you have power then it is beholden on you to use that power responsibly and for the benefit of all those in your care. Australia is home to diverse religious perspectives and its holders will at times need protection and guidance to ensure we can all live together safely, whether we are believers or non-believers, and whether we are entrenched in Australian society or are a new and precarious minority. I recommend use of the term 'creedism' as a way of clarifying that religious prejudice is a problem we in Australia must all address.