Jesus Christ was hung on a cross for saying things people didn’t like. More than 2,000 years later, what’s changed?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s last minute cancellation of her Australian tour for ‘security reasons’ is a grim omen of how the new rise of religious authoritarianism threatens the values of our free and open society.
Hirsi Ali’s escape from the medieval barbarism of her hardline Islamic upbringing to forge a new life as a parliamentarian, writer and academic is an inspiring story that is starting to look like a cautionary tale. It’s a life that sheds raw light on how a society like ours, governed by secular law enacted under democratic mandate, not religious diktat, is no mere happenstance of history.
Sadly, the fact that Hirsi Ali is seemingly no longer safe to step foot on our shores highlights that the supposed precedence our society gives to individual freedom over religious dogma is far from guaranteed.
But what is perhaps most alarming is that so-called progressives – the same people who fought for individual freedom against the religious puritans of yesteryear – are now standing shoulder to shoulder the fanatics who want Hirsi Ali silenced.
Witness the hundreds who petitioned against Hirsi Ali coming to Australia, including a disturbing number of high profile authors, academics and self-styled feminists. Worse, picture the thousands who pledged solidarity with Yassmin Abdel Magied after she faced criticism of her faith, but can’t bring themselves to care about a woman who after fleeing a life of religious servitude still faces persecution?
Is there even the faintest of doubts that if Ayaan Hirsi Ali was an anti-Catholic polemicist or simply a strident atheist her visit would pass by largely unnoticed?
Once upon a time, progressives sought to unshackle women from woolly-minded religious orthodoxies about how females out to dress and behave. Nowadays, a figure like Hirsi Ali is either ignored or denounced by a generation of feminists more interested in donning a hijab in faux solidarity with their sisters in the Middle East than talking honestly about their plight. Indeed, for throngs of self-anointed feminists, shielding the world’s second largest religion from criticism matters more than hearing the words of a woman who lives her life under constant threat for committing the medieval crime of apostasy.
Tolerance is part and parcel of living in a multi-ethnic society like ours. But a conception of tolerance which allows people to proselytise and promote their own religious credo while slapping down those who dare to dissent has more in common with the dark ages than a free and pluralistic society like ours.
Indeed, one of the virtues of our society compared to the world in which Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up is at least in theory we value the right to challenge the views and wisdom of our time more than protecting ourselves from unwelcome, even discomforting opinions.
The calculus here is that the best way to sort good ideas from bad is to open them all up to scrutiny from their harshest critics. In the broader sweep of history, this approach lays claim to no shortage of success. Martin Luther, Copernicus, Galileo and Nelson Mandela were all heretics who dared to upend the pervading dogmas of their time. If Hirsi Ali’s words really are nothing more than a platform for so-called far-right, Islamophobic bigotry, they deserve to be exposed as such in the realm of free and frank public debate. We would be the wiser for it.
Much has been said and written about how section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act undermines the ability to engage freely in public debate. But politics is downstream from culture. A system of laws that polices remarks that offend and insult isn’t half as scary as a world where religious authoritarians get to decide what can and can’t be said.
John Slater is Executive Director of the H.R. Nicholls Society
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