Emboldening those promoting bigotry

Yesterday we warned that a bill introduced to the Senate on Wednesday  by the Government was seeking to water down Australia’s laws against racial discrimination to promote the interests of those who want bigotry to be more lawful in Australia so they can abuse vulnerable minorities without consequence. Our CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, previously told the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in their inquiry into possible changes to this law that, “any change would create an impression that there is some feedback from the Parliament that the sort of hate we are seeing and the sorts of comments that have been saying that this law should be removed, which have been tied largely to those promoting that hate, have traction, and I think that is actually quite dangerous.’” These comments are not just in Hansard, they are quoted in the report itself. This warning has been ignored and we are already seeing the consequences.

The first comment we received after posting our response to the introduction of the bill attacked the Muslim community, claiming all Muslims should be a legitimate target and we should stop shielding the Muslim community from copping the blame for terrorism.  The comment went on to describe Muslims as violent thugs. Our major reports into anti-Muslim hate (e.g. in 2013 and 2015) highlight how these narratives of hate, that Muslims are terrorists and that Muslims are violent, are quite common on social media and a major part of the messaging of far-right violent extremism. The fact the Racial Discrimination Act and Section 18C have never protected against hate targeting Muslims (as Islam is a religion, not a race / ethnicity), and the proposed changed would absolutely no impact on hate against Muslims, clearly hasn’t stopped the Government’s push from emboldening the bigots and ratcheting up anti-Muslim sentiment.

Another comment we received asked “when will the Online Hate Prevention Institute stand up and speak out about the greatest book of hate that tells its followers to kill, all in the Quran in black and white”. An OHPI supported quickly responded “Maybe the day you start acknowledging the Bible is just (if not more) violent”. Religious text do have passages which are problematic from a modern human rights perspective. Some religious groups, like the Westboro Baptist Church in the United States, are considered hate groups. Most religious organisations reinterpret or ignore such problematic passages as being out of touch with today’s times.  Vatican II is a great example of the Catholic Church moving away from a long tradition of racism, specifically antisemitism. This comment, however, is not a discussion about theology and how religious text are interpreted in Islam, it is making a comment about Muslims as people, again arguing they are violent and conveniently assuming problematic passages in the Quran, that clash with Australian law, are taken literally by Muslims here in Australia. That is clearly not the case. The post, again, seeks to vilify the Muslim community.

Where is this content coming from? The first post was made by someone hiding their identity behind a recently created Facebook page. The page has just 17 likes. It claims to “Australia’s #1 independent news and commentary source dedicated to hard-hitting, no-holds-barred truthful journalism” and says that it’s aim is “To be a formidable alternative to the mainstream media”. A little digging found that the page is an offshoot of a Conservative Christian publication which came to our attention recently due to their promotion of a conspiracy theory that the Bourke Street attack in January this year was a Muslim terrorist attack. The second comment comes from someone who likes Facebook pages such as Alt Right Australia, Reclaim Australia, the United Patriots Front, Rise Up Australia, Britain First, the Q Society and a range of other pages which are either far-right, anti-Muslim or both.

What we’re seeing is the rise in Australia of the same forces of fake news and the Alt-Right which recently swept across the United States leading to a significant rise not just in hate speech but in hate crimes, particularly antisemitic hate crimes. S18C may not protect against hate targeting Muslim, but it does offer some protection against antisemitism. One can only wonder if the factually wrong arguments saying the law needs to be weakened to allow greater attacks on Muslims (as concerning as that is) are not said out of ignorance, but out of a desire for more freedom to attack other groups who are protected by Section 18C. In Australia the primary victims would be the Jewish community and the Indigenous community, but the Chinese community, the Indian community and Asian Australians in generally would also be greatly impacted. The rise in hate crimes in the US should give us serious pause. We can only speculate that weakening S18C is a move to allow the sorts of attacks currently aimed at the Muslim community to also be aimed at others. Perhaps it is an indication that the current law is working as it should and having a dampening effect on racism, and that plans are already in place to launch concerted attacks on other communities as soon as it is lawful to do so.

Of course if you believe that “people have a right to be bigots” and want to give them the right to do so in public and to attack vulnerable minorities… the proposed changes to the law would certainly be one way to do it. Harassment would be unlawful, but vilifying entire segments of the community, that is actively promoting hate against them, would no longer be unlawful. The sort of attacks we see on the Muslim community, because they aren’t protected, would likely start to become far more common against other communities. We would also lose a vital tool in our efforts to convince social media platforms to remove hate speech. Under the proposed changes Facebook pages, YouTube videos, Twitter accounts etc used by racists for the expressed purpose of building communities of hate will become lawful. We will have no basis on which to ask the social media platforms to close them. We have repeatedly warned the government about this in our submissions. The proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act are not in Australia’s interest and do not promote the values we hold as Australians. There is no need for us to go down the path of the United States on this matter with all the harm that entails.

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