Religion the flashpoint in free speech debate

by Graham Adams / 09 April, 2019
Opinion

Like many campaigners against hate speech, Green MP Golriz Ghahraman would rather not discuss how a law change would affect freedom of religion.

If there is a case to be made for stricter hate-speech laws, you’d have to say Green MP Golriz Ghahraman doesn’t appear to be the best person to make it.

Watching her argue for tougher laws on Newshub Nation over the weekend, it was impossible not to wonder why a lawyer educated at Auckland and Oxford universities seemed so unaware that she was repeatedly making highly questionable assertions and wild jumps in logic.

In the debate with lawyer and free-speech advocate Stephen Franks, Ghahraman said, “This is a conversation we need to be having because our hate speech laws aren’t actually fit for purpose right now”, but she didn’t come close to explaining why our laws need reforming — apart from implying the Christchurch massacres themselves were reason enough.

Among a number of dubious claims, Ghahraman said that Facebook doesn’t “regulate hate speech” when, as Franks pointed out, it actually spends a lot of money doing just that.

As it happens, the European Commission just last week reported tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, removed 72 per cent of illegal “hate speech” on their platforms in 2018. Facebook removed 82 per cent of such inflammatory posts, up from 28 per cent in 2016.

Read more: Where should we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?Why Trump's 'total exoneration' is nothing of the sort

When Franks turned the conversation to religion, Ghahraman said that under hate-speech laws, “You can always criticise a religion.” This is patently untrue, including in the UK and France.

She must have missed best-selling novelist Michel Houellebecq being put on trial in Paris in 2002 for saying “Islam is the stupidest religion” which is just one very famous example of how a negative opinion about a religion can land you in court.

In London in 2008, an unnamed 15-year-old was given a court summons for demonstrating outside the headquarters of Scientology with a sign that read: “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.” His sign was confiscated by police because the word “cult” was deemed “abusive and insulting”. 

Religion, of course, is where advocates of stricter hate-speech laws always come unstuck. When Franks pointed out that passages in the Bible incite hostility against adulterers and gays by recommending they be killed, and that the Koran advocates the slaughter of infidels and apostates, it was clear Ghahraman didn’t want to debate that particular issue — even though they would be clear examples of hate speech under such laws.

Franks said he didn’t think inflammatory sacred texts should be banned but rather their unpleasant messages should be countered with “more speech and persuasion” but, clearly unwilling to discuss the issue, she abruptly changed the topic.

“So let’s look at what’s happening in New Zealand right now,” she said. “We’ve had an outpouring of absolute love and unity across the country. New Zealanders have told us they don’t want to live in a divisive, hateful world.”

How anyone — let alone a trained lawyer — would think that such an “outpouring” is evidence of a general desire for stricter hate speech laws, which is what I assume she meant, is beyond bewildering.

It’s true that an impressive and heartening number of New Zealanders turned up to rallies to support the Muslim community but that’s no clear indication that many (or any) of those attending would welcome stricter laws governing what they can say about the Muslim faith or other religions. And it certainly says nothing about the views of the vast majority who didn’t attend rallies or visit a mosque in sympathy.

Ghahraman finished the debate on a triumphant note after Franks implied there was no compelling evidence for a link between hate speech and hate crimes.

“How about the words ‘UN Migration Compact’ being written on the butt of [the accused's] gun?” she cried, as if that irrefutably confirmed a link between hate speech and the Christchurch killings, presumably because she assumes that opposing the compact always amounts to hate speech towards immigrants.

Unfortunately, Ghahraman’s performance cannot be put down to nervousness from being under the gaze of TV cameras. She seems just as confused on Twitter.

On April 3, she tweeted: “We’re not immune from the politics of hate speech leaking into NZ from all over the world and allowed to grow here unchecked. Most of us would be shocked to find our laws don’t protect religious groups, gender or the Rainbow community. Time for change!”

It’s possible that her Green friends and colleagues may be shocked but it’s highly unlikely “most of us” would be, especially anyone who is aware of how such laws have been enforced overseas.

And many of us understand, like Franks, that some of the most influential purveyors of opinions hostile to gays, lesbians and transgender folk are organised religions that rely on fundamentalist interpretations of sacred texts. Knowing that, why would anyone who supported gay and lesbian rights want religions to be protected from criticism?

As has been well publicised, Brian Tamaki of Destiny Church in 2017 described gay and lesbian clergy as a “contamination”; a year earlier, he said that, according to the Bible, gays were responsible for earthquakes.

Just days before Ghahraman’s April 3 tweet, leaders around the world — including Winston Peters — condemned Brunei’s strict Sharia laws that prescribe death by stoning for homosexuals and adulterers.

When asked on Twitter if she would also condemn these laws, Ghahraman didn’t answer the question. Instead, she replied: “White supremacists are historically big into mass murder of the Rainbow community right? If you want to associate an entire race or religion with the way extremists treat minorities you would have to start with people of Western European descent. Wonder why you aren’t.”

Clearly when faced with the dilemma of condemning Sharia law or standing up for gays in countries subject to its lethal punishments, Ghahraman ducks for cover.

And the Brunei laws can’t even be passed off as a remote aberration. In 2005, Muslim Labour MP Ashraf Choudhary would not condemn the traditional Koran punishment of stoning to death for some homosexuals and people who have extramarital affairs. 

On TV3's 60 Minutes programme in July that year, journalist Mark Scott asked Choudhary: “Are you saying the Koran is wrong to recommend that gays in certain circumstances be stoned to death?"

Choudhary replied: “No, no. Certainly what the Koran says is correct,” adding, “In those societies, not here in New Zealand.”

It’s clear that his opinion would be classed as hate speech under hate-speech laws and it is exactly in situations like this that such legislation runs headlong into the right to freedom of religion — ie, the right to believe and say whatever you like in accordance with your faith.

Justice minister Andrew Little — who two years ago declared our hate speech laws were working well (describing himself as “a bit of a free speech sort of nutter”) and who in March this year oversaw a blasphemy law being removed from our Crimes Act — has changed position. In the wake of the Christchurch massacres, he now says our laws are narrow and inadequate and that he will review them with urgency

He will need to proceed very carefully. Expanding hate-speech laws in a country that has been remarkably secular and open to free speech for decades is dangerous ground for a politician.

New Zealanders — whose national museum, Te Papa, refused to remove the “Virgin in a Condom” statue in 1998 despite vigorous and sometimes violent protest by Catholics, and whose Supreme Court in 2011 overturned the conviction of an activist who burned a New Zealand flag at an Anzac Day remembrance service in the service of free expression — may not take kindly to being told there could be new restrictions on what they can say.

Simon Bridges and Winston Peters are waiting to see concrete proposals for hate-speech laws before taking a position but warn that freedom of speech should not be tampered with lightly. Act MP David Seymour is totally opposed to expanding the existing laws.

Labour and the Greens may be buying themselves an extremely bitter and damaging fight. They could well find during its bruising rounds that many New Zealanders care more about retaining freedom of expression and their right to offend than campaigners such as Golriz Ghahraman might guess.

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