Lauren Southern, Israel Folau and the problem with criticising religion

by Graham Adams / 23 July, 2018

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Lauren Southern was denied entry to Britain on the grounds she'd distributed "racist material". She's been granted a visa to enter New Zealand. Photo / wiki commons

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Is there one rule for criticising Christianity and another for Islam?

When rugby player Israel Folau posted on Instagram in April that, in line with his Christian beliefs, gays who don’t repent are going to hell, he was widely pilloried. It was never clear from the ensuing media storm whether the defenders of gay rights thought Folau simply shouldn’t have said such things in public or whether he shouldn’t believe them in private either. Criticisms of his post included that he risked sparking suicidal feelings among young gays.

Yet, when Lauren Southern set up a stall in a public square in Britain in February with posters declaring: “Allah is gay, Allah is trans, Allah is lesbian…” to draw attention to Islam’s negative attitudes to the LGBT community, she was the one who was pilloried, especially by the political left. Her stall was shut down by the police because the constabulary feared violence might erupt. No word, then, about how Islam’s attitudes to gays might drive some of them to suicide.

Later, Southern was denied entry to Britain on the grounds that she had distributed “racist material” in Luton — even though Islam is not a race and she was targeting religious beliefs, not individuals.

The fact she had been barred from entering Britain on account of her street theatre in Luton has been repeatedly cited in the free-speech debate engulfing New Zealand as a reason for also denying her entry here, or at least a council-owned platform to speak from, with her actions invariably described as having been racist.

Racist or anti-religion?

Southern may indeed have racist views but it’s hard to see how her stall in Luton was an example of them. Perhaps the word “racist” is used because it is powerful in a way that “anti-religion” is not. Describing Southern as “a fierce critic of aspects of Islam” sounds eminently reasonable — perhaps even laudably brave — while “racist” is a comprehensive slur.

It is very hard to reconcile the reactions to these events — Folau’s post and Southern’s stunt — in any satisfactory way. We might conclude that it is simply a case of one rule for criticising Muslims and another for criticising Christianity — which, as it happens, was the point Southern was trying to make in Luton in what she described as a “social experiment”. She had observed that it seemed acceptable to ask if Jesus Christ was gay (as an article in Vice had done recently) but not Allah. So she set out to test her hypothesis — and was quickly proved right.

Watch: Lauren Southern talks about her Allah is gay comments in Britain

There is another possible underlying commonality in both instances, of course — that no one wants attention drawn to the fact that most religions have views that would be condemned in many non-religious settings as bigoted. Following this interpretation of events, Folau’s fundamental error was to state in public a tenet of his religion — that homosexual acts are sinful and deserving of eternal punishment.

His post wasn’t motivated apparently by personal animosity but simply, he said, as a “loving” warning after he was asked what fate was reserved for gays in God’s plan. Many thought he should have just kept quiet about it.

No one wants to know what ugly viewpoints are festering in churches and religious groups up and down the country because a stand might have to be taken against them. And that becomes problematic because freedom of religion is as fundamental a right as freedom of speech.

Consequently, there is a vicious reaction when anyone breaks that tacit understanding, whether it’s a rugby player like Folau or a provocateur like Southern.

Like Folau bringing attention to Christian doctrine, Southern got into trouble by drawing public attention to the fact that Islamic teaching is mostly hostile to gays.

Religion vanishes in assisted dying debate

The problem is illustrated in various other domains, including in the debate about legalising assisted dying, where there is a tacit agreement that religion mostly won’t be mentioned. In public hearings before the Justice select committee, groups representing the Catholic church have couched their objections in entirely secular terms — citing danger to the vulnerable and the disabled, for instance — but rarely if ever expressing the church’s belief that only God is entitled to give life or take it away, which is the bedrock of their opposition.

None of the MPs on the panel ask submitters how much their religious beliefs have determined their views or whether any amount of evidence from jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal would make them change their minds if it was shown to be safe (as it has been repeatedly). Instead, the debate continues with a parade of quasi-religious organisations stating their opposition in secular terms without the slightest acknowledgment from anyone that there is an elephant in the room called religion.

The Justice Select Committee members hearing debate on the End of Life Choice Bill. Photo / Facebook

When someone points to the religious elephant in these hearings, the reaction is telling. Martin Hanson, a regular contributor to the Gisborne Herald on assisted dying and religion’s role in opposing it, presented a submission in early July to MPs Greg O’Connor and Nick Smith in Nelson. He began by saying: “I strongly object to efforts by religious interests to deny the right to control my own death. In a free society, such people have no right to impose their beliefs on those who do not share them.”

He went on to mention opponents who fail to state the religious beliefs underpinning their views. He cited Catholic MP Simon O’Connor saying in Parliament of assisted dying: “‘There is no such thing as a right to die. There is a right to life.’

“In other words,” Hanson told the committee members, “My life belongs to his God.”

When NOTED asked what the reaction to his submission was from the two MPs, Hanson replied: “No response or questions, just grim silence!”

Hanson had obviously broken the code that dictates religion can operate covertly in opposing human rights issues such as assisted dying but that it is considered highly inappropriate to point it out. It’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Criticism or insult - NZ allows both to be made

Lauren Southern also apparently broke that accord in Luton, with regard to gay rights and Islam. So, instead of being hailed as having publicly exposed the hostile views Islam holds towards gays and its intolerance to criticism, she was vilified and barred from entering the UK.

In New Zealand, the president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, Hazim Arafeh, argued that Southern should not be allowed to enter the country because she “abuses her right of freedom of speech. She’s just going to give a talk in which she’s just going to insult all of us… I don’t think insulting Muslims comes under free speech, that’s an abuse of freedom of speech.” 

Insult or criticism? And does it matter which? New Zealand is a secular state and — alongside the right of the religious to believe what they wish — we have wide latitude to insult or criticise them. We have done that for decades with respect to Christianity — from screenings of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian to the Virgin in a Condom artwork at Te Papa, despite protests agitating to have them banned.

Religious beliefs deserve no more protection from criticism, insult or mocking than any set of beliefs, whether political, scientific or any other kind. Islam is not a special case, despite its attempts to make it one. Southern was brave enough to point that out.

And it is deeply ironic that at a time when the Labour-led government is planning to remove blasphemous libel from the Crimes Act, Hazim Arafeh and many on the left want to effectively reinstitute a de facto version of the same law by deeming criticism and mocking of religion to be unacceptable, often under the wide umbrella of “hate speech”.

It will be interesting to see what submissions are made when the bill comes before a select committee. When Labour MP Chris Hipkins introduced an amendment to remove the anti-blasphemy law in 2017, the National Party and the Maori Party voted against the move.

The Anglican Archbishop and Primate Philip Richardson, however, recommended getting rid of the archaic law. As he said: “God’s bigger than needing to be defended by the Crimes Act.” 

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