Being a Muslim in Australia must really suck. No matter what you do–or don’t do–you’re always at risk of creating hot take content. For the past week or so, Haneen Zreika’s decision not to wear a Pride Guernsey has been fodder for the chattering classes when. People ‘just asking questions’ have stirred some pretty gross Islamophobia, particularly the idea that being Muslim is incompatible with upholding human rights (loosely understood) and liberal values (even more loosely understood). In the backdrop of the discussion are also fairly borked intuitions about the new Religious Freedoms Bill and, it seems, even more hostility towards the idea that any concession should be made to religious beliefs.
Let’s sketch the actual situation in broad strokes, and then move as quickly away from the specifics of this discussion because Zreika really shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion.
By all accounts, AFL Women’s has been a roaring success. It started in 2017 and public support has been so strong that we’re starting to ask why the ‘AFL’ is a default male league. Call it AFLM, you cowards.
AFLW is a massive corporate beast and, as such, quickly engaged topics about the intersection of professional sport and social activism. Australia has never handled these topics well; perhaps the most famous of these discussions about Israel Folau, a rugby player who holds some fairly strong views about homosexuality and God’s plan for people who enjoy it. Folau was sacked, kicking off a clumsy, awkward, and mostly unedifying public discussion about ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion’.
Zreika is the first Muslim-Australian player in the AFLW. AFLW holds a ‘Pride Round‘:
This is the second year we have formally celebrated Pride Round across the women’s competition. We are certain we would not be in a position to hold the round without the years of work done and still pursued by the trailblazers of our game to create inclusivity, visibility and awareness for the LGBTIQ+ communities (Source)
It was decided that the Pride Round would involve wearing guernseys that included (as I understand it) the Pride Flag. Zreika stated that she wanted to sit out the Round as she felt that, despite being committed to inclusion, wearing the flag was inconsistent with her religious beliefs. Then the chattering began…
Let’s stop talking about Zreika in this context. It’s manifestly unfair to make her the face of a debate that is far older, bigger, and more complex than her, and to set her up for the kind of horrible shit that passes for public debate. Let’s instead move the discussion into more general terms.
What do we gain by creating these false stand offs between Islam and ‘Secular’ Liberalism? Let’s be really blunt about it: the intuition that Muslims should be compelled to act in particular ways, especially such that their religious beliefs should always be considered ‘lesser than’ other considerations, is just Islamophobia by stealth.
If we’re being intellectually serious, we know that there are just some ideals that are incompatible with each other or, at the very least, cause tension with each other. ‘Freedom of Speech’ issues regularly have this problem because the concept is so amorphous and nebulous. You know you’re not dealing with somebody serious when their ‘freedom of speech’ concept is just a blunt weapon–‘All speech is speech and should be unrestricted’–or when the weapon is crudely carved for convenience–‘All speech except for speech I dislike or don’t value is speech and should be unrestricted’.
My general rule of thumb for getting through these debates is to look to the harm and then justify the harm: ‘Ordinarily, I should avoid offending people, but there might be good reason to offend somebody.’ It’s this model that is at the heart of ss 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act: it is an offence to offend, but there might be good reasons to offend that are protected.
And it’s this approach that allows me to engage in the complexity of ‘freedom of speech’ issues. I can be really generous with thinking that things are speech–speaking in the town square, joining a protest, burning a flag, donating huge amounts of cash to a political candidate–and then think about whether restrictions placed on those activities are justifiable.
Too many people want to say that religious expression isn’t a freedom of speech issue, and their arguments are flimsy. ‘Religious belief isn’t true belief, and freedom of speech is about uncovering truth’ is probably the silliest argument in this stable and yet I hear it regularly. I’m an atheist and even I shy away from thinking that religious belief is false. And there are varieties of this argument extending even to ‘Religious education for children is child abuse.’ It is a debate with deeply, deeply cooked views.
The better way through the current topic is whether or not we think there’s a difference between positive speech acts and negative speech acts. It is one thing to say that we want a space that is free of homophobia and transphobia; it is another to say that we want a space where we get people to assert approved statements of affirmation.
So you have a person from a religious minority who is playing for a corporate entity that wants to run a Pride event, and she’s in a moment of tension between different ideals. How did she resolve this? By sitting out. She didn’t say anything homophobic. She didn’t make a statement saying that gays were going to hell. She just resolved the issue by not committing to the positive affirmation of a statement.
Yes, we can make silly thought experiments of ‘What if…?’ but was her decision so irrational that no rational person could make that choice? No. There were no wonderful answers, a range of acceptable answers, and a lot of options that were horrifically terrible. Provided she didn’t elect for an horrifically terrible option, who are we to tell her what she should wear or what speech acts she should be forced to commit?
Stop creating space for Islamophobes, you big idiots.