In 1996, British artist Chris Ofili premiered his painting of the Virgin Mary composed through liberal use of elephant dung and pornographic images amongst other quirky ingredients. The ‘edginess’ of the work – aided in no small part by outpourings of anger from Christians, seemed to appeal to the Arts establishment and it was displayed at top galleries in London, Berlin, New York and even Hobart before fetching $4.6 million at auction in 2015. Over those 18 years, there were just two attempts by vandals to deface the painting as well as a failed 1999 lawsuit against the Brooklyn Museum by former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani wasn’t quite trying to censor the painting. His argument was that a public rather than private Art gallery funded by American taxpayers – a significant chunk of whom identify as Christian, should not be spending taxpayer resources on showcasing and promoting something that literally ‘shits’ on their deepest-held beliefs.
Compare that saga to the more-recent saga of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the ‘Draw Muhammad’ contest controversy and it’s quickly apparent that the response has been starkly different. When cartoons of the Islamic prophet were published in a private Danish newspaper in 2006, it provoked a heated response worldwide which including attacks on Danish and other European diplomatic missions, attacks on churches and Christians, a major international boycott and violent protests resulting in over 200 deaths.
Closer to home, the 2012 protests by Sydney-based Muslim groups against low-budget, obscure American film The Innocent of Muslims which painted the Islamic prophet negatively but was never released formally in Australia – also escalated into violence. Some protesters held signs calling for the beheading of anyone who insults the prophet. Others assaulted a passer-by who had ironically accused them of promoting murder in the name of religion and pelted the police with bottles when they came to the man’s aid. Police cars were damaged and officers injured.
The concerning thing about these protests when they spring up in the West is that a majority of those pushing for them are not new immigrants – they are second or even third generation Australians who have not come to terms with the reality that living in a secular society means that your ideas and beliefs, no matter how much they mean to you, are not entitled to protection from criticism or even ridicule.
Violence may be the exception rather than the rule when a new act of ‘blasphemy’ surfaces against Islam in the West but the recent controversy and eventual cancellation of Islam critic and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Australian tour highlights a new trend in the outrage lobby’s attempts to stifle dissident views – the bigotry card. Ali, a former Muslim and vocal critic of Islam and the treatment of women in Islamic countries and communities has been deemed an ‘Islamophobe’ for her scathing remarks by many Muslim groups. These include a coalition of prominent academics and activists who had launched a petition condemning her invitation for an Australian speaking tour at the behest of a private organisation, Think Inc.
“Hirsi Ali’s sheer presence in Australia undermines both intra and inter-community efforts toward social cohesion and in providing platforms for Muslim women to champion their own causes,” they argued.
How can the mere presence of a contrarian deny those with the opposite view a platform? Ali doesn’t claim to be the voice of all Muslim women nor does she condemn her detractors when they are given a speaking platform the way she has been condemned by them.
“To conflate hate speech with free speech undermines both the intelligence of our community and the efforts we have made to maintain respect and dignity in an environment of such hostility,” the petition continued.
The bigger insult to people’s intelligence seems to be the conflation of insulting an idea or belief system with hatred against anyone who identifies with that belief system. Moreover, ‘free speech’ by definition includes speech which may be deemed offensive or upsetting. The very notion is premised on preventing one person’s outrage from shutting down another person’s expression.
That Ali’s comments can be taken as ammunition to fuel the agendas of those with genuine hateful or violent intentions against Muslims may be a legitimate argument. But if the concern about ‘hate speech’ against Islam leading to violence is this pressing then why is an equal or greater level of concern not expressed at direct threats of violence and death which often follow when high-profile Islam satirists and critics speak? Critics like Ali who has endured death threats throughout her life and lives under constant guard, or her close friend, Director Theo Van Gogh who was murdered by a Dutch-born Moroccan-origin fanatic in 2006 for collaborating with her on a film about Islam.
Unlike their approach to Christianity and other faiths, an almost paternalistic approach to Islam seems to have the implicit support of much of the hard and soft left socio-cultural and media establishment. It is now commonplace for the media to respond to terror attacks by insinuating potential Islamophobic fallout before the blood of the victims has even dried. Labor MP Anne Aly recently responded to public concerns about Section 18 C’s impact on free speech by arguing that it be extended even further – to encapsulate religion, arguing that this is a protection that religious minorities may need.
These developments may seem expected but it strangely uncomfortable that at the same time, the political left which once considered itself the champion of civil liberties and the downtrodden are quiet about a Somali-born female genital mutilation survivor who grew up in an oppressive, hardline religious culture being unable to speak or share her experiences in Australia due to security concerns and threats.
Evidently, Ali’s biggest crime is not her blasphemy or heresy, but her failure to conform to their narrative.
Satyajeet Marar is a Research Associate with the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.
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