Freedom of speech v protection of values
Surely no sensible person would speak in favour of a DVD that urges children to martyrdom, calls for a war between Islam and the West, and labels Jews “an army of pigs”.
That the “Death Series” DVDs featuring Sheik Feiz Mohammed was initially given a PG rating is ludicrous and has appropriately raised community ire. More importantly we should ask why these DVDs were ever permitted to be sold and distributed under any classification. While this aspect of the debate has provoked a political reaction that certainly requires the closest scrutiny, bipartisan proposals to ban these types of materials ultimately deserve community support.
Feiz Mohammed was formerly the leader of the Global Islamic Youth Centre in Sydney, and is now resident in Lebanon. "Teach them this,” he says in one of the series, referring to the children of viewers: “There is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a mujahid (holy warrior). Put in their soft, tender hearts the zeal of jihad and a love of martyrdom."
Feiz’s various diatribes in the series have been published elsewhere, but it is enough to say that they are equally incendiary and demagogic.
In response Attorney General Phillip Ruddock, supported by the Leader of the Opposition, proposes to toughen the classification laws that allowed the DVD to be distributed, banning materials that “advocate" terrorist acts. This may offend the sensibilities of some, but their concerns demand careful consideration.
Certainly outright censorship is a blunt weapon, to be used rarely and with caution. Ultimately, however, this is a conflict between two rights: the right to freedom of expression versus the right of a society to protect even more important values.
Like those who maintain a moral equivalence between acts of terrorism and legitimate national defence, supporters of an unfettered right of expression do not accept that there are absolute core values that must be protected in a multicultural society, where the challenges of ethnic diversity are ever present. Most members of a democratic society would accept the right of citizens to champion unpopular ideas.
Once we accept the unregulated right to promote any ideology, even one that advocates murder and genocide, we sanction the intellectual debate that inevitably follows. Do we really want to engage advocates of terrorism in a contest of ideas, or canvass whether a “violent jihad” could in fact insinuate a spiritual struggle or might be open to ambiguity?
Should Australians be obliged to not only listen to those who conspire to murder them in the name of a religious ideology, but also to go further and safeguard their right to do so? What’s next, a debate on Radio National about the pros and cons of ethnic cleansing?
In every Australian state intimidation and harassment can constitute a crime. We know that domestic violence often begins with threats, and as the television commercials urge us, it is there that it should be recognised and stopped, before it escalates to physical assault. We should not be expected to sanction the sale and distribution of a DVD that threatens our citizens and attacks not only our way of life, but also our right to draw breath in the Western democratic tradition that we have chosen.
The Government’s proposal to refuse classification to material that "advocates'' terrorism goes to the heart of the issue. Yes, it infringes an absolute freedom of speech (as so many laws already do), but it hardly presages an Orwellian future. It is merely a barrier to violence and mirrors two pillars of our criminal law, the deterrence of crime and the maintenance of a social order.
That Australians have chosen a liberal secular culture and a representative form of government does not require an apology, not to anybody and not at any price. To invite into our homes peddlers of violence and genocide is not just self-destructive, it also abrogates our duty to protect ourselves and our families.
In the “Death Series” DVDs Feiz Mohammed goes much further than an expression of ideas or dissent from prevailing values. He intimidates and harasses from a position of influence and power, targeting Jews, Christians and Western democratic institutions as worthy targets of terrorist acts. We must not allow this type of militant rant. It does not deserve the protection of one of our most precious values, the freedom of speech.
This opinion piece was originally published in the 8 May 2007 edition of On Line Opinion.