Hang on a minute, Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali didn’t kill anyone. The Sheik has been getting hammered front and centre in the media for nearly a week for his crass s-xist comments. Lost in all this anti-analysis is the fact that he didn’t do anything which directly harmed another person. On a scale of harm, it is far less damaging to say something, as opposed to inflicting suffering on others.

It is outrageous that the Sheik has been pilloried by the media and the community far more than any religious or community leader who in recent times has been guilty of actual s-xual misconduct against women and sometimes even children.

The most obvious reason for this is the anti-Muslim sentiment that exists in the community and media. That’s the first illuminating point to take from the Sheik saga.

Still, the Sheik wasn’t helped by the Muslim community, which is cannibalising itself by enthusiastically joining the Sheik lynch mob. A more mature and organised group would have apologised on behalf of the Sheik and sent him out quietly to pasture for a few months for some attitudinal re-wiring. Talk of sacking the Sheik should not have been entertained – we all make mistakes.

The other main lesson to be drawn from this saga is that a robust right to free speech is crucial to forging a progressive and fair community. But for this to occur we have to be tolerant towards the expression of even loopy views.

Despite the misguided nature of the Sheik’s comments, we are still better off for the fact that he felt free to express his comments, as opposed to peddling them quietly to impressionable minds. This way the community had the opportunity to rebut his outdated views with a healthy dose of the truth.

Of course there are limits to free speech. We can’t shout fire in a crowded cinema or spread lies which defame people and cause them harm. It is also wrong to say things that incite violence.

The alarmist and overly punitive response to the Sheik’s comments makes it less likely that people in similar positions will air their controversial ideas in the public domain. This is a pity. We thereby lose the capacity to neutralise other misguided ideas by copious amounts of realism, to the point where they are consigned to the realms of delusional fiction.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey