18C and Religious Offenses

Simon Leitch*

Brisbane, February 18, 2015 (Alochonaa):In the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo killings, Western democracies continue to struggle to reconcile their rhetorical commitment to free speech with their legal commitments to stamp out hate speech and racial vilification. The generalities of the debate are as old as the Enlightenment but in Australia the debate has become focused around meaning of a section of the Racial Discrimination Act known as 18C. 18C bans actions which will offend, insult or humiliate people because of their race, ethnicity or national origin. There are exceptions for satire or comedy or if the statement is broadly accurate or part of a sincere discussion, however, the implementation of 18C is periodically controversial. Last year, Attorney-General Brandis tried to water down 18C using the bizarre justification that people have the right to be bigots. Unsurprisingly, that pitch resulted in no action on 18C but the Charlie Hebdo killings have seen 18C thrust back to controversy with Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson claiming that 18C would mean Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons would be banned in Australia. This would, in his view, simply be hypocritical censorship incompatible with the expressions of support for free speech which are flowing from Western capitals and the media. In fact, Wilson’s concerns merely scratch the surface of moral pitfalls of censoring Muhammad using 18C.

Arbitrary Insults Ignoring the fact that we are talking about a religion and not an ethnic group, publishing pictures of a religious figure is not the same as insinuating that all Muslims are terrorists, that Aboriginal people are all lazy drunks, that Jews are covetous liars or that Italians are mobsters. A picture of Muhammad attributes nothing negative to the faithful and entails no discrimination except if we wish to include the violation of religious law by non-believers in the category of discrimination. To be clear, depicting Muhammad is a sin and a crime in standard interpretations of Islam but then so is depicting Jesus, Abraham or any other prophet. As Islam strictly forbids idolatry as a whole, it is also illegal to have other religious idols and thus implicitly violate the principle of tawhid (the oneness of God). Whilst we are on the subject of things which are insulting to Islam we may add eating pork, not praying enough, being atheists, unmarried sex, drinking, gambling, polytheism and disregarding the Sabbath. There is absolutely no reason why depicting Muhammad should cause more outrage than violating any other tenet of Islamic law and the rage over the latest cartoons is completely arbitrary. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo or the members of the Human Rights Commission commit just as great a sin as idolatry every time they eat bacon and eggs or decide not to pay the zakat or jizya.

Shifting Goalposts of Discrimination Justifying censorship of images of Muhammad under 18C opens up a range of questions about who can demand protections from being offended. If the Racial Discrimination Act is now being interpreted as protecting religious laws from violation because breaking a religious law is offensive to the faithful, then we should ask why Islamic law is being protected and why this particular one. Religious people frequently feel insulted, marginalized and slighted by people of other faiths or by secularists but we cannot live in a multi-religious society where every scriptural law is simultaneously obeyed by everyone all the time. To cut though the rhetoric of Islamic sensibilities, this censorship has nothing to do with anyone being offended per se – the issue is that people are using idolatry as an excuse to kill people and jihadists and radicals are manipulating their blasphemy laws to radicalize Muslim communities. It is a campaign of assassination which has caused the censorship and wrapping censorship in liberal language of tolerance does nothing to paper over the supreme act of arbitrary religious favoritism which is occurring. The goalposts of censorship have apparently now shifted to satisfying a handful of radicals and there is no logical point at which radicals can be satisfied. The West is so irreligious, un-Islamic and sinful in the eyes of jihadists that anyone sufficiently motivated to kill a cartoonist will find blatant violations of sharia anywhere and everywhere they look. Far from diffusing radicalism, placing non-obscene cartoons in the category of discrimination or vilification simply normalizes radicalism and creates a new and more regressive status quo which can be further eroded as new issues are interpreted in light of precedent. Who Should be Offended? Censoring images of Muhammad under 18C comes with a hefty dose of irony. Consider this – a book, with a cartoon of Muhammad could be banned in Australia, regardless of its message, but a book which calls for the death of converts is currently legal (I have one). For instance, hadiths 9:83:17, 4:52:206 and 9:89:271 of the Sahih Bukhari which advocate killing will still be legal, along with the rest of the Torah and the Quran (which I also have), but cartoons will be censored because they are offensive. There can be no greater example of a warped value system for the Human Rights Commission than enforcing a ban on cartons whilst ignoring invocations to genuine discrimination. I do not actually advocate censoring religious material. As a student of Middle Eastern history, I certainly have enjoyed my Torah, Quran and the hadiths, but an infidel should be much more offended about what Islam says about them than Islamists should be over cartoons images of Muhammad. The Human Rights Commission should consider that carefully.

*DrSimon Leitch is the Editor in Chief,  Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University.  His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers. ** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at  

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