July 21, 2004 | Graham


Consider this – a mild-mannered Australian newspaper editor with a slight US accent says that Palestinians are “vicious thugs” and “cannot be trusted”, and his employer, the Fairfax Group, is found guilty of inciting racial hatred and fined. Two nights ago ABC Four Corners showed a programme on Mamdouh Habib, one of two Australians held by the US government at Guantanamo Bay. In it they showed excerpts from a taped sermon from a Lakemba prayer room that contained the words “the Zionist – those pigs – the Zionist-American domination in every corner of this earth?” The tape is for sale in NSW. Will the sellers, publishers or authors of the tape be sued? I doubt it.
In a recent On Line Opinion article , Amir Butler explained why he had changed his mind on the need for anti-villification legislation. I have never been a fan. Punishing hate speech doesn’t stop it, just drives it underground. ASIO and the NSW Police are apparently aware of the activities of the prayer room, but presumably doing something about it using hate speech laws would cause more trouble than leaving it alone.
For one thing, it would probably attract more of the sappy sort of “analysis” that Four Corners brought to bear on the Habib case Monday night. It was an interesting study in minority rights sensitivities. The Habib story was told almost entirely from the point of view of friendly witnesses. There was his wife Maha, there was his taxi-driving celtic-Australian Moslem convert friend Ibrahim Fraser, and there were two Moslem clerics – Sheik Taj Al-din Al-Hilaly and Sheik Abu Ayman.
Habib, according to the programme, has a long history of associating with people accused of being terrorists, two of whom were convicted in connection with the World Trade Centre bombing. The clerics have a long history of advocating Jihad, and one of them runs a prayer room which he admits is used by some as a recruiting ground for Jihadists. Habib has apparently twice been to training camps run by Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda associated terrorist groups and was arrested in Pakistan while returning from the second one.
Things that grated about the programme include the description of Al-Hilaly as having moderated his views. The proof? In 1988 he said “The Jews try to control the world through sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, treachery and economic hoarding.” But, about the 9/11 attack he said recently that it was “God’s work against oppressors.” Some moderation.
Habib was portrayed as a lost soul. The clerics were the mouth-piece for this argument and were treated as credible witnesses. As other evidence in the programme suggested that Abu Ayman is involved in recruiting for Jihad he has a motive for suggesting that:

… I was really shocked [about Habib’s internment in Camp X-Ray], because the assessment of the Government should be better than anyone else. They know he’s a disturbed man, they know his background. He never did a real threat or a real problem for the Government or for outsiders. But the Government didn’t do anything to let the American understand “This is not the right man in your hand. He is not what he claims he is.” He is a disturbed man. He doesn’t deserve that punishment for his big mouth.

The programme left you in no doubt that this was Four Corner’s view as well – these were afterall the final words in the programme.
Al-Hilaly also inferred that Habib was paranoid because he thought people were watching him. If ASIO had knocked on my door frequently over the last few years and I was in contact with people with associations with known terrorist organisations, I might think people were watching me too, but it wouldn’t be because I was paranoid! This charge of paranoia was left to hang in the air seemingly as part of the proof that Habib is harmless and just a bit disturbed.
Another thing that grated was the use of the adjective “so-called” by the interviewer to qualify the term “War against Terror”. It’s adjectives like this that see the ABC accused of bias. Both Mark Latham and John Howard see no need to qualify it, why does Aunty?
Now, let’s conduct a thought experiment using the mix of criminally accused, family, friends and clerics, but this time, let’s assume that the accusation is involvement in a paedophile ring rather than conspiracy to kill and maim innocent people through terrorism and that the clerics are Anglican or Roman Bishops and Archbishops. One of them might even be retired and hold the highest office in the land, say that of Governor-General.
Need I go any further? What sort of story would Four Corners do in that situation? A nice soft one, or would the people concerned be damned without a trial? I’m sure you get my point.
We’ve worked ourselves into such a sweat about treating everyone equally that members of the majority, even be they publishers of national newspapers or establishment religious leaders, often find themselves treated the way we used to treat minorities. At the same time we refrain in some cases from using laws alleged to enforce tolerance because not only will they be ineffective, they might even bring sympathy to the perpetrator.
It’s the feeling of many that they are strangers in their own land which delivered Howard his winning constituencies in 1996 and again in 2001. Looks like Four Corners is doing its bit for Howard in 2004.

Posted by Graham at 4:52 pm | Comments (2) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. I think that part of the problem is that whereas once the objective of all minority groups was to achieve equality of opportunity and, to varying degrees, that has been accomplished, many now see the fight as being one of acceptance. In other words, the legislative push has gone from anti-discrimination to anti-vilification; from the right not to be denied opportunities or the provision of services due to race, religion or sexual preference to the right not to be offended because of decisions that you have made or ideas that you have adopted. It is this type of thinking that, in my view, underpins both the push by religious minorities for laws to outlaw criticism or vilification of their religious beliefs as well as the push of sexual minorities for ‘rights’ that go far beyond the simple tolerance of their lifestyle choice that was once the principle objective of the homosexual rights movement. The danger is, of course, that the pendulum is swinging too far in one direction and the majority may feel – rightly or wrongly – that their right to hold opposing views or take opposing moral positions has been undermined or usurped in the name of other people’s ‘right’ not to be offended or their ‘right’ not to be vilified. When that happens, and I am not sure it will happen here, then one should expect a pretty significant backlash directed both at the minorities themselves and those who have traded away what is a fairly fundamental right in itself: the right to challenge or criticize what are ultimately ideas and decisions.

    Comment by Amir — July 29, 2004 @ 11:19 am

  2. Amir,
    I think we have already seen the backlash – Pauline Hanson. The fact that she has vanished doesn’t mean that the sentiment doesn’t remain.
    She was one of the reasons for setting up On Line Opinion as a site which welcomed a wide diversity of views and encouraged people to engage, no matter what they think. We’re only part of the way there as of yet.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 29, 2004 @ 1:36 pm

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