Ben Roberts-Smith (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

A barrister acting for Ben Roberts-Smith has alluded to an obscure Islamic juridical concept — popularised by anti-Muslim alt-right figures — to discredit an Afghan witness describing alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops.

Amid the marathon defamation proceedings against Nine for reporting on Roberts-Smith which the former soldier has denied, there was an odd moment during cross-examination of Darwan farmer Man Gul last week. 

Bruce McClintock SC, acting for Roberts-Smith, reportedly asked whether Islam followers are permitted by their faith to deceive others: “It’s in fact permissible to lie to infidels under your religion, isn’t it?”

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“No, I haven’t seen anything like that, one should not tell a lie,” Gul replied.

McClintock has been casting doubt on the motives and credibility of witnesses called in defence of Nine throughout the trial, as he’s no doubt been directed to do. 

But knowingly or not, this seemingly bizarre line of questioning has foundations in a little-known Islamic reference that’s been repurposed to demonise Muslims. 

Taqiyya is an term taken from the Koran and other Islamic literature that means the act of concealing or falsely denying faith when faced with potential persecution, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, used to avoid “periodic persecution” of Shia Muslims by Sunnis. 

This is not a core tenet of Islam. Scholar and author Dr HA Hellyer pointed out the idea — similar to the Jewish concept pikuach nefesh that states that preserving human life overrules almost any other religious rule — is barely known among adherents. 

“It used to be that the very word taqiyya was scarcely known, even among Muslims,” he wrote in a piece published by the ABC

This, however, has changed since the mid-2010s. Taqiyya has been distorted and harnessed by people stoking anti-Muslim sentiment to argue that Islamic citizens across the Western world cannot be trusted. 

In 2015, University of Melbourne’s national centre for excellence for Islamic studies honorary fellow Dr Shakira Hussein argued taqiyya had been falsely redefined by critics of Islam fearmongering in a post-9/11 era to expand the justification of lying to to include “serves the expansionist agenda of their religious community”. 

“It is part of a wider trend in which Muslims are not criticised for their beliefs, as much as they are assigned spurious beliefs on the basis of a sometimes very tenuous religious affiliation,” she wrote

Hussein pointed to the rumours of US president Barack Obama being a “secret Muslim” as the logical conclusion of this idea. 

Hussein’s sounding of the alarm was prescient. The emergence of the alt-right — which has since become swallowed into the broader, populist right — embraced this concept as a meme to discredit Muslims.

“I mean, 99.99% of Muslims don’t even understand what taqiyya is, but every alt-right Twitter troll is an expert on Islamic theology now, which is completely absurd,” Imraan Siddiqi, a state executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told BuzzFeed News at the height of the term’s popularity in the US in 2018.

This incorrect interpretation of the concept was cited by alt-right media figures to undermine the high-profile accounts of the Texas teenager who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school in 2015, the parents of a US army captain killed during the Iraq War who criticised Trump in a 2016 Democratic Convention speech, and to dispute that British terrorist Usman Khan could ever be rehabilitated. 

Even then-frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination Ben Carson said that no Muslim should be allowed to be the president because of taqiyya

So the argument that Islamic faith allows Muslims to lie to non-Muslims for any reason isn’t a small aside from one of Australia’s most eminent barristers in a marathon trial. It’s also an anti-Muslim meme that’s been used to stoke hatred and fear of a faith that, perhaps, could play a part in determining the outcome of a high stakes legal battle over Roberts-Smith’s reputation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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