By Shakira Hussein and Helen Pringle
11 April, 2014
In 1997, Archbishop George Pell sought to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from publicly exhibiting a photograph entitled Piss Christ, by the American artist Andres Serrano. The photograph shows Christ crucified, in a red and golden mist, an effect achieved by the immersion of the crucifix in the artist's urine. Or so Serrano claimed. Serrano also claimed that it was a work of great reverence. This view was shared neither by George Pell, nor by a group of three men who attacked the work with a hammer days after Pell's action failed in the Supreme Court. The youngest of the trio said that the image "mocked his God."
Pell's failed action was the most recent legal action against blasphemy in Australia. It is sometimes cited as evidence of the suburban platitude that yer can't say anything about Muslims but yer can say anything yer like about Christians. Or as the Sydney Morning Herald's Sam de Brito puts it:
"Mock Christians, get laughs, mock Muslims, get bullets: A young man mocks Christians on stage on national television he gets laughs. Another young man mocks Muslims on YouTube; he gets bullets through his home's window."
In support of his "argument," Brito contrasts the comedian Joel Creasey with Nathan Abela, of the Australian Defence League (ADL). In an SBS comedy show, Creasey suggested that if the audience were more Hilllsong-religious, "you'd probably be at home right now, maniacally fisting yourself toAntiques Roadshow." According to Brito, Abela's "taunts sit in the same ballpark as that of Creasey," even though made by a member of the ADL, "a far-right organisation of violence-prone, Islamophobe hooligans." Nothing has happened to Creasey - at least, so far - whereas shots have been fired at Abela's house. In moments that match Dickens's Mr Wopsle in full flight, Brito implies that he knows who Abela's shooters are: Muslims. Brito writes that "shooting at people if they happen to mock your faith on YouTube" doesn't lead anywhere morally (whatever that means).
What does this all come down to? Muslims have no sense of humour, or so little of it that they respond to satire with bullets instead of self-deprecating merriment. One problem with this analysis is that Abela is not a comedian (except in the sense that ruffians are called "comedians" when they give smartarse answers to the police). Abela's "jokes" consisted of harassing young Hijabi women, photographing them without their consent and then posting the photos on social media under hateful sleazy comments. The release on the incident notes that the publication of the captioned photos was not merely offensive but vilifying of the woman and of Muslim women more broadly. The victim is now understandably afraid to take public transport and has taken leave from her job.
The type of comments on the photos are similar to those found targeting Muslims during any one of the outbreaks of frenzy that punctuate Australian life, such as the response to Bendigo Bank's decision to close the account of an anti-mosque group. Such comments are sprayed all over sites like "Fly an Aussie Flag - it offends muzzies" or "Boycott Bendigo Bank - Anti Australian and supporters of terrorism" or on Abela's own homepage. The comments are the usual mix of misplaced apostrophes, weird spellings, and over-use of "f*cking," together with outrageous slurs and all accompanied by protestations about the muzzling of free speech. "Ban Bendigo Bank until it allows its customers to freely engage in public debate," urges Andrew Bolt, never stepping outside of costume.
There's something rather peculiar about comparing this cacophony targeted at Muslims individually and collectively with the (admittedly unfunny) remarks of a single comedian. There's something even more peculiar about viewing both through the prism of "offence" and hence as something that should be able to be shrugged off. To be appropriately of legal interest, racial or ethno-religious expression needs to meet a standard, not just of offence. As Rowan Williams argued in 2008:
"any crime involving religious offence has to be thought about in terms of its tendency to create or reinforce a position in which a religious person or group could be gravely disadvantaged in regard to access to speaking in public in their own right: offence needs to be connected to issues of power and status, so that a powerful individual or group making derogatory or defamatory statements about a disadvantaged minority might be thought to be increasing that disadvantage."
On the basis of considerations about disadvantage and vulnerability, the then Archbishop of Canterbury was able to make a clear distinction between mocking Christians, and mocking Muslims in Britain.
In the one case, ridicule may be offensive to its targets, and indicative of bad character or poor judgment on the part of the speaker. In the other case, the offense of mocking serves to render its targets as vile and contemptible, something that resembles an attempted nullification of the dignity of the person. When offensive acts or speech-acts gain traction as vilification through such a connection to civil status, they work to construct and consolidate civil and political identities in a pattern of racialised or ethnicised identities.
A perspective that understands offence where it vilifies as a form of discrimination in fact provides the most persuasive interpretation of the controversial Racial Discrimination Act in Australian courts. In the case of Hagan, concerning a sign at the Toowoomba Sports Ground reading "The E.S. 'Nigger Brown' Stand," Justice Drummond (finding against the complainant) noted that Section 9(1) of the Act:
"makes unlawful acts which are detrimental to individuals, but only where those acts involve treating the individual differently and less advantageously to other persons who do not share membership of the complainant's racial, national or ethnic group and then only where that differential treatment has the effect or purpose of impairing the recognition etc of every human being's entitlement to all the human rights and fundamental freedoms listed in Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or basic human rights similar to those listed in Article 5."
At stake in such matters are questions of civil equality and inequality. Such cases are not about the hurt feelings of individuals.
The claim that Christians are open game but Muslims are not cannot be adequately explained by their apparently different reactions to "humour." Rather, it can be best explained by the different significance of the wrong that is done. Members of the Hillsong Congregation may well have taken offence at a comedy routine that depicted them engaging in graphic sexual acts in front of boring television shows, but they are unlikely to have been so traumatised by the experience that they are afraid to go out in public. And nor does it seem that Joel Creasey's routine was designed to bring about that end. Those targeted by the Australian Defence League, on the other hand, hold reasonable concerns for their personal safety, even if the threat takes the form of "humour." And they hold reasonable concerns as to whether they are given an assurance of equal standing and consideration in our society.
Shakira Hussein is the McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. Helen Pringle is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales.