Ali’s cancellation of visit casts shadow on free speech

Jewish Community Council of Victoria executive director David Marlow. Picture: Andrew Mangelsdorf

By Andrew Mangelsdorf

Somalian-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s last minute decision to cancel her tour to Australia and New Zealand set for this week, citing security concerns, has raised serious doubts about the state of free and democratic debate in Australian society.

Ms Ali has been an critic of Islam for over a decade, and lives with a constant security detail due to the death threats made against her.

On one occasion, her collaborator in a film condemning the treatment of women in Islamic teaching, Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered, and a death threat to Ms Ali was found pinned to his body, the ABC reported.

A supporter of free speech,  Monash University senior law lecturer Dr Sharon Rodrick voiced her concern on Ali’s cancellation this week in an interview.

“It’s disappointing that you can’t … have someone just come and speak about Islam. I mean to me that’s a lack of free speech, and our politicians should stand up against that,” Dr Rodrick said.

“And if people want to criticize her, fine. That’s free speech too … free speech cuts both ways. It means you gotta cop it when people don’t agree with you.”

The Coalition’s own recent attempts to reform section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act appear in disarray after Labor, the Xenophon senators, the Greens and Jacquie Lambie threatened a veto in the Senate last week.

The legislation makes illegal any speech that “is reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people”.

The Coalition had proposed to insert the word “harass” and remove the words “offend” and “insult,” The Daily Telegraph reported.

While the Coalition was pressing for these reforms, they also issued their first policy statement on multiculturalism, entitled: Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful.

The statement reaffirms the government’s commitment to diversity of race, culture and religion in Australian society.

It also emphasises the need for immigrants to integrate and uphold Australian values.

Speaking to David Marlow, the executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria this week, I asked him what his thoughts were on the whole affair.

“It … seemed a bit, odd, that they should be putting out a multicultural statement at a time when they’re pushing to get rid of or water down 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act,” Mr Marlow said.

“And we … had been working for now a few years, with a lot of other faith and cultural groups … across the state, and across the country, in trying to protect 18c, because we see that … although it’s not a perfect tool to fight racism, and antisemitism, it’s one of the few things we’ve got.”

More recently, criticism has arisen after a group of students from Queensland Univeristy of Technology were embroiled in a very controversial case.

In May 2013, two students were made to leave a computer lab where they had been working, as they were not of Indigenous race.

One of the students, Alex Wood, then wrote on Facebook: “Just got kicked out of the unsigned Indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation?”

This comment led to over three years of litigation, after which the charges were dropped, but not before the students suffered significant damage to their reputations.

Calum Thwaites, one of the accused students who fought his claims, no longer believes it is possible to pursue his dream to become a teacher in the remote far north of Australia, The Australian reported.

“The problem for the QUT students … (is that) it really didn’t work well there …  if you’ve got a law that says that you can’t offend somebody, you really haven’t got freedom of speech … in that context,” Dr Rodrick said.