Amid the debate over 18C and 18D, many Australians have advocated for self censorship around questions of religious and cultural sensitivity. eir position is that the criticism, satirizing or de- piction of things deemed ‘special’ to certain community groups should be muzzled, or at least dis- couraged writ large.
In their view, such behaviour is in ammatory, unconstructive, and only serves to in ame commu- nal tensions.
is view is dangerous, because whilst seeming reasonable upon rst glance— it does not conform to secularism.
An example of such ‘unconstructive’ behaviour is the drawing of the Prophet Mohammed.
In a radio interview in 2015, Kuranda Seyit, the Head of the Victorian Islamic Council and the then human-rights commissioner Tim Wilson, were discussing such drawings in Australia. Mr Wilson remained for, Mr Seyit remained against.
Half way through the interview, Mr Seyit was asked by Mr Wilson: “Why should I censor what I say, for something I don’t believe exists?” Mr Seyit quickly responded, “Because I would censor myself ”.
In saying that because he would personally censor himself, and others should follow suit, Seyit, and others like him, unknowingly advocate for a kind of cross-confessionalism, as understood in coun- tries like Lebanon.
Cross confessionalism is where people display a high degree of religious tolerance, even if the com- munity and government are sectarian by nature.
In countries such as Lebanon, there are parallel Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze communities that coexist to varying degrees. is relative harmony is o en put down to Lebanon’s secular culture or rule of law. It certainly appears that Lebanese people enjoy the ‘freedom’ to practice their religion and identify as part of a particular community.
Lebanon, however, is not secular, and its institutions are divided between di erent sectarian groups. e state is not equidistant from any religion in particular. Individual communities exercise con- straint, as people change their behaviour to avoid o ending others that hold di erent religious beliefs.
us social harmony is based on communal self censorship, and freedom of expression is not un- derpinned by the law.
Now it would be stupid to claim that Australia’s government is sectarian, or that people are engaging in self-censorship to avoid large scale violence, as is the case in parts of the Middle East.
However, proponents of cross-confessionalism are still borrowing a key idea, namely: that individ- uals should implicitly abide by the rules of other religions to preserve social harmony, avoid o ense, and keep the debate ‘constructive’.
Secularism holds that all people are free to practice whatever religion or hold any belief so long as they do not prevent others from doing so. Aside from the fact that the above goals are nebulous, asking Australians to abide by the rules of belief-systems they do not subscribe to is not secular.
Ironically, notions of inter-communal respect are more o en used to put o solving inter-com- munal tensions than they are to solve them. But they always place limits on discussion, debate and understanding.
e debate over 18C must not forget that forcing people to follow customs they don’t believe in because others expect the same in return has more in common with places a icted by sectarian violence and distrust.
Ushering in a cross-confessional approach would be a step in their direction.