Freedom of religion

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is about Freedom of Religion and Belief

The Australian Muslim community is diverse and disparate. There are multifarious groups stemming from different schools of thought and ethnicities. There are many people who come to Australia with different experiences and issues about freedom of belief and human rights in general. Under some regimes the practice of one’s religion has been suppressed or restricted. Many newly arrived Australians understand the need for freedom of religion and belief more than others and it is here in a country like Australia that we can offer them at least that basic human right.

Islam as a religion is now the second largest global religion after Christianity. Culturally, there are approximately around one hundred different cultural groups in Australia which adhere to Islam. The largest are Lebanese, Turkish, Afghan, Indian, Pakistani, Somali, Sudanese, Iraqi, Iranian, Bosnian, South African, Fijian-Indian, West African, North African, Bangladeshi, Kurdish, Uyghur, Turkmen, Malaysian, Indonesian and a number of smaller minorities within the SE Asia pacific region such as Mindanao, Chinese Muslim, Burmese and Sri Lankan, Mauritian and Central African.

The very diverse nature of Australia makes it imperative that we have strong policies and laws in place to protect the freedom of religion and belief. In the past decade Australia has seen a marked change in the make up of society, with an emerging Muslim population which originate from the ethnic or cultural groups listed above as well as others. As we begin to see more and more Muslims in our suburbs in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Brisbane and Canberra, the associated problem of racism, Islamaphobia, Xenophobia and bigotry arise.

With the global media focus on Islamic hot spots, such as Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia the impact on Australia is significant for the very reason of our pluralism, many of the people here are affected by the problems abroad. While we are a long way from interning Muslims, there have been calls for banning of Muslim migration, banning the headscarf, increasing security at airports targeted at Muslims, banning other forms of Muslim dress, as well as an increase in resistance to the construction of Islamic schools and mosques.

With this as a background, it is all the more important that the Australian government sets a unshakeable foundation in the freedom of our expression of our religious beliefs, in a safe environment without fear of violence, prejudice or injustice.

The situation has not become any better since the Isma Report by HREOC of 2003. In fact, the war on terror has exacerbated the situation for Muslims in Australia and created more suspicion and loathing of Muslims and Islam. The Cronulla riots of 2005 highlighted this fragile situation. In 2007/8 the proposed building of an Islamic school in Camden, further illustrated just how ingrained our attitudes were to Multiculturalism and change. Over the next few years we will have to brace ourselves for more intolerance towards Jews, Muslims and other Middle Eastern minority beliefs such as Mandean, Druze or Bahai as a result of the instability in the Middle East.

Freedom of religion and belief should be a cornerstone of our society. Australians including atheists should be free of harassment or torment for the stance which they choose to take on religious practice.

It is probably true to say that as a religious practice Islam and Sikhism have the most difficult barriers to cross due to their strict dress codes and in the case of dietary requirements, Islam is further alienated by the halal requirements and the forbiddance of alcohol. Whilst, not a crucial issue, Muslims not drinking or eating pork can appear as a social barrier.

In any case, Indonesia is our largest Muslim neighbour and the reality is that we as a nation are situated in a region where Islam and Buddhism dominate. Also the growing humanitarian crisis of displaced peoples (who are mainly of Muslim faith), indicates that there will be more Muslims in Australia and that with the current global crisis the resentment of Muslims by mainstream Australians can only grow. It is also an unavoidable reality that most of the asylum seekers to Australia are poorly educated, cannot speak English and come from troubled places. This makes the disparity between these people and older generations more acute. It also creates the impression that Muslims are backward or uncivilized, albeit, a wrongful impression based on this great divide between new arrivals and settled ones.

There must be mechanisms in place that protects the cultural rights of these people and anyone else in Australia who may not adhere the mainstream religious systems such as Christianity and its associated off shoots.

Australia is a signatory to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and has ratified the Covenant in Parliament, therefore, Australia has a responsibility to uphold every Australian’s right to religious freedom.

Article 18 states:

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

The Australian Constitution Section 116 explicitly says:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

State Acts

Some of the confusion within states is the use of state and federal laws which can create some conflict of interest. The NSW state law under the 1977 Anti-discrimination Act does not include religion per se. It does cover ethnicity but is no protection for Muslims, Christians, Hindus or Buddhists (the four largest religious groups).

Some states have a Religious Hatred Act which is designed to protect people from religious vilification and hatred. This was tested in Victoria in 2000 during the Catch the Fire Ministries and the Islamic Council of Victoria (plaintiff), which ultimately was overturned after appeal but originally in favour of the plaintiff. Religious vilification is often difficult to prove and a contentious issue in the first place. Under the law it is not imperative that the religion is hurt but the actual adherent or adherents are hurt or placed under moral danger. Having such a law federally is fraught with danger but may become a necessity. This is something that should be argued in parliament.


In the aftermath of September 11, there was a sharp rise of incidents involving Muslims and others around discrimination and abuse. There were a number of cases of Mosques being vandalized and in Kuraby, Brisbane a mosque was burnt to the ground.

There have been some high profile cases of terrorism related offences and this has vindicated some of the governments programs to address national security.

The most serious issue arising was the ASIO raids and abuse of power. Currently there several cases before the courts and many people of Muslim faith remain in limbo while investigations take place.

This is a breach of freedom of religion. Many Australians merely by the faith that they adhere to have been subjected to ridicule, humiliation and invasions of their privacy by not only law enforcement and intelligence agencies but at times through the media coverage that usually follows it.

Technology and its implications

The advance of intelligence devices such as phone tapping, bugs, security cameras, secret video surveillance, email tracking and so on has created a new type of breach of one’s right to privacy and practice of their faith.

This must be argued in parliament as to whether it is unconstitutional or not.

Religion, cultural expression and human rights

Daily, there are many issues facing Muslims such as their freedom to practice their faith overtly or covertly, intertwined with their cultural habits. The most obvious issue is the Islamic dress code for women which has become of point of contention not only as a restriction of women’s rights but even as a national security issue. Men’s dress is not as a large a problem but does propagate stereotypes and unnecessary security concerns for men who sport a long beard, wear long shirts and turbans or caps, especially at airports and sometimes during normal police stops.

Women are often discriminated at the workplace, at hospitals and doctor’s surgeries and also in public malls, shopping centres, at tourist sites or motels and resorts, at the beach and picnic places, universities and schools, on public transport and in the media. There have been many reports of physical and verbal abuse of women wearing the headscarf.

The definition of religion has still not yet been clarified, as illustrated by case of Wesley Mission. The definition should be enacted under law by parliament and include religious items of clothing.

There are concerns also about funeral and burial rites for Muslims. Under Islamic practice the body must be buried immediately after washing. Under law the body is sometimes required to be kept in a morgue and/or an autopsy to be carried out. This is a problem for Muslim families and some mechanism must be put in place to deal with it.

A major issue for Muslims is access to halal food and the right to source halal food.

Halal food which pertains mainly to meat but includes food prepared in such a way as there is no cross-contamination of the food. Halal food is similar to kosher food and in fact Muslims may eat kosher if halal is not available. Halal food entails the correct humane method of slaughtering and the letting of the blood. The animal should be placed in unclean conditions, exposed to maltreatment or fear and not slaughtered in front of other animals.

Halal food is compulsory for all Muslims and is not a negotiable issue. The issue of access to halal food has arisen in prisons and universities.

This would have to be instituted under separate policies and practices for universities and the department of corrective services. However, some provision must be in place to protect the rights of prisoners who have no power and ability to provide halal food.

Provision of place of prayer at the workplace

I believe that this is the employer’s right to provide a space for prayer for all religious faiths, however, it’s not something that could be enacted by law. I do believe as this issue becomes more widespread some type of policy should be made to address the need.

Provision of prayer area in domestic airports

However, as the airport is a public place, a prayer area is essential. Most international airports have a prayer area however it does not seem like common practice at domestic terminals. This is something that could easily be addressed.

Access to Friday prayers

This is an issue that most employers are accommodating however for many getting to prayers on time is a bit difficult. More awareness must be made of the fact that Muslims worship on Fridays and that a provision should be made. Normally, Muslim men who are required to attend the mosque, take their normal lunch break to attend. For those who live far from the nearest mosque would need an extended lunch and make up for it later.

In government offices employees are allowed up to 2 hours for lunch. In the private sector this may be more of a problem.

Family law and Islamic family law

This is a really interesting issue as Islamic law is a very complex and developed science and could be worth researching to see if there is any value in the system that could benefit the Australian system. In any case, the problem is that many couples require Islamic law to deal with some of their family matters. In Malaysia there is a mechanism to deal with family matters in two different courts. I am not advocating that but believe that a counseling program that helps clients before they reach the courts would be an effective way to deal with family matters such as divorce and alleviate the stresses and trauma involved with divorce for Muslim clients. This would be similar to the
Family mediation centres but instead have Muslim mediators conversant in Islamic law and practice.

Charitable donations

There must be exemptions to individuals who make charitable donations with honest intentions to organizations that may have been proscribed by various security agencies. This is sometimes a problem and invariably its Muslims that are targeted.

Islamic schools and colleges

There are many schools now in Australia and generally speaking there are not many associated problems. However, there are many misconceptions about Islamic schools and we need some discussion about the ongoing problem of fear and resistance to Islamic school applications.