We are going to get on to Charlie Hebdo in just a moment. But first a brief excursion.
Imagine that you are a rather old-fashioned Roman Catholic priest in Ireland in the mid-1980s. You have been a member of the IRA all your life, as your father was. You genuinely believe that it is God’s work to kill Protestants, and to shoot any of your fellow Catholics who get in your way in the knee. You are desperate to get rid of filthy Protestant practices, such as contraception or legalised abortion. But you’re getting on a bit, and you need some help with the killings and the knee-cappings from the younger generation. You are happy at the level of financial aid which is coming in from NORAID, so you have plenty of guns and materials to make bombs. You are not at all happy that Monty Python’s song “Every Sperm is Sacred” has just won a BAFTA award for Best Original Song in a Film. They are heathens.
You think you’re doing quite well with one of your young parishioners explaining the seriousness of the cause, and how hell and damnation will result unless more heathens are killed. But then your young charge cocks his head on one side, and gently starts singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
You have lost him. It would be very frustrating.
Hmm. Estimates vary as to how many people were killed by the IRA – probably more than 3,700 with tens of thousands more injured, particularly by bombs. The killing eventually stopped. Happily, the British government never resorted to bombing the Republic of Ireland, although the demise of the IRA might have been assisted by the British security forces killing a few of its particularly unpleasant members. More to the point, it seems that in the end the Irish preferred shopping to war, and having a fine sense of humour, actually thought that Monty Python was quite funny.
Certainly, ridiculing the terrorists would have helped. But not all governments think like that. Take for example
the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 of Victoria. Section 8 provides as follows:
Religious vilification unlawful
(1) A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.
It would be hard to deny that Monty Python severely ridiculed the Catholics who were trying to prevent contraception and abortion. I am not aware that the authorities have attempted to charge anyone with showing The Life of Brian in a cinema in Victoria, but there are certainly other instances where they have charged people under section 8 for comparable ridicule of Muslims. A case in point was Islamic Council of Victoria v Catch the Fire Ministries Inc (Final)  VCAT 2510 (22 December 2004), which concerned remarks made by a gentleman who apparently started life as a Muslim in Pakistan, but subsequently became a Pastor in a born-again Christian movement, Mr Daniel Scot. Mr Scot evidently knows quite a lot about Islamic teaching, and does not like what he sees. He was found to have contravened section 8 in numerous respects at a seminar (it seems to have been rather poorly attended, and almost entirely by committed Christians at that), but the Koran takes a particularly dim view of people who abandon Islam, and Mr Scot and his ministry were hounded through the courts. The statements made by Mr Scot, which were found to be in contravention of section 8, included the following (the whole list is tiresomely long; these are just some examples):
(1) That the Qur’an promotes violence and killing – p.4; looting, killing and destroying people – good for Muslim people – p.24.
(3) That the Qur’an teaches that women are of little value, e.g.:
(a) woman is like a field to plough, use her as you wish – p.6;
(b) in the Hadith Bukhari woman, dog and donkey are of equal value influencing prayer of a Muslim man – p.7.
(4) That Allah is not merciful. The thief’s hand is cut off for stealing. Mohammed did not spare anybody. Amputation occurs for even the stealing of an egg – p.10.
(9) People do study for six to seven years they become true Muslims. And we call them terrorists, but they are true Muslim; they have read the Qur’an, they have understood it and now they are practising it, that is the connection between the Qur’an and terrorism – p.19…
(11) Mohammed trained the entire nation and he took literally, part in the Holy War. He showed Muslims how pleasant it is and if you are killed in the Holy War you can be brought back to life because dying as a martyr is such a wonderful thing – p.32; Allah will remit the sins of martyrs and bring them into paradise, a reference to a connection to suicide bombing – p.33; parents bringing up their children for martyrdom, where there is a reference to a teenage son will be a suicide bomber and if killed he can intercede for his mother and father and relatives – p.34.
(12) Muslim people have to fight Christians and Jews – p.38; humiliate them – p.39; fight them until they accept true religion – p.40.
(13) After reference to the bombing of the Trade Centre in New York it is mentioned that the person who masterminded it stated that “The Holy War is the spirit, it is the soul of Islam. If you remove it, nothing left, so that is the truth about the matter” – p.43…
(19) Refers to the fact that it was thought that he was Muslim and had converted to Christianity, what would be the responsibility of fundamentalists in that respect, to which the audience said “Kill, kill” p.86. That in Australia in Islamic houses violence is very common because they know that beating is not wrong according to the Qur’an. Allah says “Scourge your wife” – p.95.
Now, there is a potential defence under the Act, under section 11. It goes like this:
(1) A person does not contravene section 7 or 8 if the person establishes that the person’s conduct was engaged in reasonably and in good faith—
(a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or
(b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held, or any other conduct engaged in, for—
(i) any genuine academic, artistic, religious or scientific purpose; or
(ii) any purpose that is in the public interest; or
(c) in making or publishing a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest.
That fact that what is said is entirely true is not of itself a defence. Could it really be said that Monty Python’s mockery of the Catholic Church was “reasonable” and “in good faith”? Well, to be honest, probably not. And the Tribunal thought the same of Mr Scot’s observations. Monty Python were flat out in the business of making zealots look like ridiculous idiots, and being very funny in the process. I do not know how amusing Mr Scot is. People do similar things these days about Leviticus, which is a book in the Bible which forms part of the religious teaching both the Christians and Jews. But Leviticus contains all sorts of ridiculous nonsense. Not only is it very down on gays:
But it’s not too keen on blasphemy either: –
24:16 And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.
Plenty of people has treated this sort of thing as mere ranting from a potty Bronze Age zealot, and the entreaties in Leviticus to murder gays and blasphemers are quite properly treated as just as ridiculous as its prohibition on wearing clothes containing a linen-wool mix:
19:19 Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.
But here is the thing. Whilst the Bible does contain these elements of intolerant nonsense, the Koran is absolutely riddled with them. People have done counts: there are over a hundred exhortations along the lines that is a jolly good idea to kill Jews and other infidels. The politicians these days regularly trot out that Islam is a religion of peace, but it is entirely obvious that it is nothing of the sort, and the people who carry out atrocities in the name of Islam are not “extremists”, but rather people who believe in doing what the Koran tells them to do. Of course, the majority of Muslims do not go around killing people. This is not because their holy book is much tempered by anything along the “turn the other cheek” line, but because they are sensible, intelligent people who are simply not prepared to go along with the mad ideas in their holy book. We should not be treating them as “the enemy” but rather encouraging them to develop a secular sense of humour.
In the end, and after lengthy and no doubt extraordinarily expensive litigation, Mr Scot was let off the hook by the Court of Appeal in Australia in Catch the Fire Ministries Inc & Ors v Islamic Council of Victoria Inc  VSCA 284 (14 December 2006). An interesting aspect of that Court of Appeal decision was consideration of whether the legislation is in fact unconstitutional, on the grounds that it prevents freedom of speech. The Court of Appeal was not prepared to find that there was any constitutional basis in Australia for absolute freedom of speech:
210 Even if s.8 does burden political communications (which in my view it does not), it is compatible with the requirements of a representative democracy to place reasonable limits on the freedom to communicate views which incite hatred or other relevant emotions against people because of their religious beliefs.
Unsurprisingly, it is completely impossible to buy Charlie Hebdo in Australia. And in truth, I very much doubt that I would find it as funny as Monty Python. Or for that matter Private Eye. The French tend to have a rather slapstick sense of humour.
But I do believe this: that whether it be regarded as a question of freedom of speech or not, we are much more likely to be spared a third world war against Islam if our public response to Islamic terrorism – or any other religious nonsense – is not ill-placed encouragement and support, but mockery and humour. Laughter is infectious, but political correctness is not.