It’s very easy to form opinions on issues on the basis of personal likes or dislikes. For example, most of us can agree that Holocaust denier David Irving is a bad man, therefore we don’t enquire too closely into the justice of his incarceration. Although at some level we know that bad people also have rights, we’re not keen about defending them; hence the unpopularity of those who speak out on behalf of accused terrorists, rapists, child molesters and the like.
To that list we can add Christian fundamentalists. The Victorian Court of Appeal is currently grappling with the case of Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot, two fundamentalist preachers who were found last year to have breached the state’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act with their attacks on Islam. They were ordered to make public apologies and not to repeat certain statements, and they have appealed.
Nalliah and Scot’s views are undoubtedly poisonous. But that fact must not be allowed to blind us to the implications of their case.
On the reports so far, the Court of Appeal is mindful of those implications. On Monday, according to The Age, Justice Nettle asked: “Are you saying it’s impossible to incite hatred against a religion without also inciting hatred against people who hold it?” Counsel for the Islamic Council of Victoria responded “Yes.”
It almost beggars belief that an Islamic organisation in today’s circumstances could be defending the state’s power to suppress dissent.
But the tactical stupidity of this position is matched by its philosophical audacity: they are saying that an attack on ideas is necessarily an attack on persons. But in that case, how is intellectual debate possible?
My training is in philosophy, and philosophical argument often proceeds by attacking people’s deepest, most fundamental beliefs. But it does so in an atmosphere of strong personal respect; saying that someone’s worldview is totally mistaken or incoherent is not seen as reflecting on them as a person. According to the Islamic Council, however, that attitude just isn’t possible, at least when it comes to religion: “If one vilifies Islam, one is by necessary consequence vilifying people who hold that religious belief”.