I have been criticised by several people I respect (and a few I do not respect) for a tweet last week in which I said “Sorry to see Andrew Bolt stirring up Islamophobia today on his blog. People like Bolt and Abbott are the real threat to our way of life”
This has been taken by some people as me expressing support for jihadists. It was not. I detest Islamic extremism. Let me make it really plain: I detest extremism of any persuasion. One reason I think we should be less hysterical about boat people is that most of them are fleeing the same extremists we dread.
Perhaps it is a limitation of Twitter as a platform for non-trivial ideas, but my point was about people who stir up Islamophobia, and the risk they present to our way of life. I would make exactly the same point about people who stir up hatred of any other group. Right now, Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism, and it is dangerous.
Mr Abbott referred to Muslims a number of time in his speech on Monday, and he referred to the Lindt café siege in Sydney. It is important to bear in mind that the Lindt café siege was not a Muslim terrorist event: it was not any sort of terrorist event. It was the terrible act of a madman. The fact that he was a Muslim is utterly irrelevant. The fact that it is used, even indirectly, to stir up fear of Muslims is utterly disgraceful.
Of course, Muslims are an easy target: ISIS is doing a pretty bad PR job for Islam. But most Muslims do not support terrorism, either here or overseas. A small group of zealots support ISIS and want to join its fight. If there are 50 jihadists in Australia who would fight with ISIS (unlikely), that represents about two Australians in a million who are sharply at odds with us. Is two in a million really a big enough threat to encourage us to abandon long-held principles of justice, fairness and liberty?
Mr Abbott has suggested that we should not give the benefit of the doubt when making decisions about bail. It is an interesting point. Bail exists to give effect to the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty. A person charged with any offence (other than the most serious) is presumed to be entitled to bail, so they do not have to stay in jail until their trial. Those charges with, for example, murder, are presumed not entitled to bail. The presumption for or against bail can be displaced by evidence.
The possibility of bail is important, especially when the trial may be 6 or 12 months away. I wonder how many Australians would approve the idea of jailing a person pending trial “just in case” they might commit an offence. Especially as a person charged is presumed innocent, and may be found not guilty.
It is an essential principle of our system that a person should not be punished unless they have been convicted of an offence. The legal system has plenty of examples of people who are charged and then acquitted at trial. Bail is available so that a person who might ultimately be acquitted is not punished in the meantime. Equally, there are examples of people who are charged, acquitted and then go and commit an offence. It would contradict centuries of legal thinking and social attitudes to say that the person should have been held in jail “just in case”. Punishment in advance of an offence, or in anticipation of the possibility of an offence, is utterly inconsistent with long-accepted social norms.
Similarly, privacy is a widely accepted principle. The possibility that the movements and conversations of all citizens could be tracked by government agencies cannot be reconciled with accepted social values.
Mr Abbott’s recent comments about the threat of terrorism were plainly directed at the risk of Muslim terrorism. Mr Bolt’s writing frequently plays up the risk of Muslim terrorism. Both Mr Abbott and Mr Bolt have voices which are widely heard and uncritically accepted. They are both significant elements of an increasing anti-Muslim sentiment in the community. If Mr Abbott has his way, that sentiment is going to be harnessed by the government to introduce laws which will cut down basic civil liberties, in particular by restricting bail and enlarging ASIO’s powers to spy on the public at large by use of electronic data.
Before we are frightened into accepting the sort of legislation Mr Abbott foreshadowed, it is worth recalling the sober warning of Benjamin Franklin, who said:
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
In December 2004, the House of Lords decided a case about English legislation which provided for detention of people thought to present a terrorist risk if they could not be deported. In an 8:1 decision, the House of Lords determined that the laws did not comply with the UK Human Rights Act. Lord Hoffmann said:
“…the real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its tradition laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.”