Article Title:The freedom of speech problem
Author or Credit:Jay Bennie
Published on:1st November 2006 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:1467
Text:Kim (his real name) is a neat bloke. He's an openly gay New Zealand man in his mid 40s who works in health care, is active in the gay community and occasionally takes a trip to Sydney at Mardi Gras time to let his number-two-cut hair down. Two years ago Kim and a friend walked down lower Oxford street in what is, or used to be, the heart of gay-safe Sydney, trying to ignore a barrage of crude anti-gay taunts from a group of "young Middle-Eastern looking" men behind them. Blackout. Kim recovered consciousness in a hospital emergency room after a sudden and brutal attack by the homophobic yobs, so sudden and brutal that his mind has to this day blacked it out. His friend came off a little better and remembers a few details. The side-effects, physical and psychological, took months to subside. Carol (not her real name) is a straight, pakeha woman, an evening shift newspaper sub-editor who now lives in Sydney after years in Auckland. Her stories of frequent abuse from groups of prowling "swarthy" young men on almost deserted commuter rail platforms are chilling. "Cover your head you whore!" is one of the least offensive verbal assaults she reports. And she has suffered minor but frightening physical assaults, of the 'elbow in the ribs kind', as one or other of these louts purposely veers into her. I thought of these incidents, and others like them, as I read the news reports of the disturbing and controversial comments by Australian Muslim leader Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali, who preaches that women are tools of satan and bring rape on themselves. This man is poisoning the minds of his followers, under the cover of freedom of speech and religion, with the after-the-fact justification that his comments were made in the privacy of a sermon so why should outsiders be concerned! Well, the hundreds of Kims and Carols who fear for their safety because religiously-inspired louts put their cleric's teachings into practice are concerned. On this side of the Tasman our otherwise enlightened Muslim MP Ashraf Chouhary eighteen months ago suggested publicly that stoning homosexuals to death is ok in countries where it is permitted by Islamic law, though not, he rather awkwardly added, in New Zealand. Barely a year before that a regular Auckland TV programme 'Voice of Islam' featured at length and uncontested a cleric teaching Muslim Aucklanders that homosexuals should be put to death. And lest this sound like a specifically anti-Muslim rant, we should not ignore the duplicitous "hate the sin not the sinners" rhetoric of religious cult guru Brian Tamaki and recall those hateful street marches by his followers. What might a group of Tamaki's thugs, or a pack of Muslim louts with years of anti-gay brainwashing ringing in their ears, feel the urge to do on a late-night stroll down Ponsonby Road? And many other burgeoning extreme conservative Christian groups are hardly better. Sadly, it is impossible to respect the freedom of speech rights of religious leaders who use their platform to encourage the denigration of those who do not adhere to their narrow and toxic principles. Religious teachings that conflict with fair and reasonable secular law (eg. all people are considered innately equal) create conflicts in the minds of their followers which can easily lead to, well, think of Kim and Carol and the Enough is Enough marchers and you'll get the picture. Yet that same freedom of speech was one of the underpinnings of the campaign for Homosexual Law reform in the days when homosexual behaviour was against the law. Somehow, for the good of all of us, these preachers of denigration and hate must come to understand - no, believe - that men who cannot control their sexual and violent urges, not women, instigate rape. That some people are black and some are white and some are women and some are men and homosexual and straight and believers and non-believers, and none of us is by our nature an affront to any god or whatever folk want to believe in. Somehow they must be guided accept a whole bunch of subtle and varied aspects of the rich and wonderful folk we try to include in our fair and civilised society. Floating around parliament are calls for beefing up New Zealand's laws against 'hate speech'. Such laws would be a rather blunt weapon which may cause more resentment in some quarters than already exists. But they will gain more support every time pious, self-serving and just plain ignorant promoters of intolerance publicly or privately incite their followers to despise some of their fellow men and women. Jay Bennie - 1st November 2006    
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