Senator Cory Bernardi’s call to ban the burqa is more sinister than many other similar calls around the world.  Senator Bernardi, by associating this Islamic head dress with criminality, has gone a step further than those politicians who have called for its ban in countries like France, Belgium and the US.  The question is, do Senator Bernardi’s comments amount to religious vilification?

Senator Bernardi argued yesterday that the “burqa is no longer simply the symbol of female repression and Islamic culture, it is now emerging as a disguise of bandits and n’er do wells.”  Bernardi seized upon an alleged crime in Sydney where police say a man wearing a burqa and sunglasses robbed another man in a Sydney carpark on Wednesday this week.

Bernardi also trots out all the usual right of centre arguments for banning the burqa.  It’s un-Australian, it’s a symbol of oppression of females and the like.  These are common arguments used by French, American and Belgian legislators to enable them to ban burqas in those countries.

But to associate persons wearing a burqa with criminal conduct is taking an already extreme argument to a new level, and one that should cause law enforcement agencies and governments around Australia to examine carefully what Senator Bernardi is saying.

There are laws in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania which make religious vilification illegal. Senator Bernardi’s comments have been published in each of these jurisdictions and so attract the operation of those laws.

A defence to most of these laws is that the person making the statement did so reasonably and in good faith for academic, artistic, scientific or research purposes, and in the public interest.  It is hard on any measure to see that Senator Bernardi could justify his linking of wearing a Burqa to criminal activity on one of these grounds.

But are Senator Bernadi’s statements linking the burqa with criminality offending these laws?  Possibly so, and particularly in Victoria.  That state’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act introduced in 2000, outlaws religious vilification, and makes serious vilification a criminal offence that attracts a $6000 fine or six months imprisonment.

The Victorian law provides that a person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.  And the law also makes it a criminal offence to, “on the ground of the race of another person or class of persons, intentionally engage in conduct that the offender knows is likely to incite serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.”

Senator Bernardi’s comments could certainly be said to amount to religious vilification and by arguing that a person wearing a burqa might be a criminal it is certainly arguable that he is inciting serious contempt or revulsion of Muslim women.

It is one thing to argue for a ban on burqas on societal cohesion grounds, but quite another to do what Senator Bernardi did yesterday.  This is why religious vilification laws are important.

Peter Fray

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