In the latest of several recent anti-Islamic crimes, a four-wheel drive has been firebombed and racist graffiti sprayed at the Australian Islamic College in WA, while hundreds prayed at a nearby Mosque.
The attack has led to calls for greater police efforts to arrest and prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes, and the extension of anti-discrimination laws to cover religious vilification.
The College’s Executive Principal Abdullah Khan described the attack as “disheartening,” adding “we understand it’s a small fraction of the community… the perpetrators of this attack are definitely not representative of the mainstream Australian community.”
The school had requested more police patrols until the end of Ramadan to deter further incidents, and has installed security cameras and engaged guards to monitor and patrol the area after-hours.
Western Australian Opposition Leader Mark McGowan says Australians need to present a united front against hate crime.
“This isn’t the Australia that all of us know and love. This is people who have got hatred in their hearts and we need to reject this, absolutely,” he said.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also condemned the attack, saying Australia is “founded on a fundamental, a foundation of mutual respect.”
Western Australia’s Ethnic Communities Council is concerned that the incident represents a growing trend in anti-Islamic violence.
“There was a similar act of religious vilification at the Southern River Mosque on Saturday where a pig’s head was thrown at the front door,” the Council’s Suresh Rajan said.
Mr Rajan believes right-wing politicians are partly responsible for fueling the flames of religious hatred through disseminating misinformation about the effects of immigration.
“Every time someone in power, some of the opinion leaders around the world, around Australia, takes a position on this, and we see this from people like George Christensen and Cory Bernardi, what happens is that it emboldens those racists,” he said.
Vilification Laws in Australia
Freedom of speech is not guaranteed in Australia – indeed, there are laws in all modern democracies which draw a line between free speech and hate speech.
Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) prohibits public acts which “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” others on grounds of “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.
There are a range of exceptions contained in section 18D, including acts done reasonably and in good faith:
- in relation to artistic work;
- for academic, artistic, scientific or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or
- as a fair and accurate report or comment of any event or matter of public interest; or
Significantly, the section does not extend to religious vilification. Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania have passed laws to fill this void, through the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (Vic), Anti-Discrimination Act (Qld) and Anti-Discrimination Act (Tas).
Those laws seek to extend the protections of section 18C to religion, containing exceptions similar to those in section 18D.
However, the remaining jurisdictions – including WA and NSW – do not have laws which prohibit religious vilification, and victims are often left to rely upon restrictive general criminal laws for protection, such as those which prohibit offensive language and conduct.
As to the general law, a court will determine whether language or conduct is ‘offensive’ using the ‘reasonable person’ test. That hypothetical person cannot be overly sensitive or easily offended.
Given the current social climate, a legitimate concern is that some magistrate, somewhere will form the view that a reasonable person would not be offended by religious vilification, potentially leading down a slippery slope.