The recent debate last month regarding the watering down of Section 18C of the Racial discrimination act in order to safeguard freedom of speech has created further concerns regarding discrimination, bigotry and vilification on the basis of religion.

In Australia, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a number of protected attributes including age, disability, race, sex, intersex status, gender identity and sexual orientation in certain areas of public life, including education and employment.

However the elephant in the room seems to be religion. Australian law offers very limited protection against discrimination or vilification on the basis of religion.

The Racial Discrimination Act doesn’t explicitly prohibit discrimination on the ground of religious belief. However religious groups who have a common ‘ethnic origin’ such as Jews and Sikhs do have some protection under these laws.

This leaves out Muslims, as the only minority group who hail from a diverse range of racial and ethnic background, who are not protected by the law under this legislation.

International law in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrines the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

International human rights law also prohibits religious hatred and discrimination prohibiting any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, as well as discrimination on the basis of religion.

As has been pointed out by Mr Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission (see page 11), international law in this area has been incorporated in a haphazard way into the Australian law rendering only a piecemeal protection for freedom of religion.

Mr Santow has pointed out, “Beyond the Constitution, our ordinary law offers some very limited protection against discrimination or vilification on the basis of religion, especially in a work context…and there are some real gaps in how Australian law protects freedom of religion.”

He talked about a recent Scanlon Foundation survey found significantly more negative attitudes toward Muslims than Christians and Buddhists. There were concerns raised about the negative impact of calls to ‘Ban the Burqa’ and opposition to planning applications for mosques.

In its most recent statistics, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry recorded in one year 210 anti-Semitic incidents, including physical attacks, verbal abuse, harassment, vandalism and property damage. There have been many reports of attacks on places of religious worship or people who are visibly religious.

“We need to improve how the law protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the rights of people of faith. One way of doing that would be to protect freedom of religion in our federal anti-discrimination law. This is an idea that I’ll be working on further this year,” Mr Santow said.

Australia’s Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed had earlier called for Muslims to be given the same protections as ethnic groups under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, saying the law must be “strengthened”, not weakened, in the interest of minorities.

He also recommended amending the act to include the prohibition of religious vilification to cover Muslims and all religions, in accordance with article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Labor’s Dr Anne Aly, federal member for Cowan has said that there is scope to reassess extending Section 18C-style protections to make it unlawful to offend someone on the basis of religion.

In making her point, Dr Aly said that she didn’t understand why “someone can call you a dirty Arab and that be covered under the bill, but if they call you a dirty Muslim, you’re not covered.”

With rampant Islamophobia in the country and vilification of Islam and demonisation of Muslims, not only by extremists, but by some politicians, it’s time that religious discrimination, vilification and hate speech is prohibited and Muslims as a minority are protected by legislation for Australia to remain a respectful, cohesive and successful multicultural society.


Z I Ahmad