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Debating bad ideas

By Laurence Maher - posted Wednesday, 2 August 2017


In April 2017, the Australian chapter of the international religious political party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) disseminated on the worldwide web a video recording of a discussion, conducted partly in Arabic, between two of its women members.

This discussion concerned the following English language translation of Surah 4:34 of The Koran:

Men are protectors and maintainers of woman, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are Qanitat [obedient], and guard in the husband's absence what Allah orders them to guard. As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, and beat them, but if they return to obedience, do not seek a means against them. Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great.
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Ironically, HT has done Australians an unintended favour by challenging them to investigate and debate the merits of HT's theocratic detestation of secular Western liberal democracy. That worldview, set out at length in HT's English language online sites and elsewhere, includes religious supremacism, a form of sexual apartheid, and an occasional opportunistic fondness to offer to make a public case for "honour" killings.

What might the ordinary Australian reasonably make of the ideas expressed in HT's chosen scripture characterised by one of its women members as "beautiful" and a "blessing"?

Australians deserve to be reminded that Chief Justice Latham said in the Jehovah's Witnesses case (1943) that the freedom of religion under s 116 of the Australian Constitution is both the toleration of religion and the toleration of no religion. In the latter case, it protects the right to believe and say that all religion is superstition. At the same time, however, it also protects the right to believe and say that all infidels (whatever the sectarian starting point) are inferior and destined for well-deserved eternal Hellfire unless they submit. It matters not that either type of statement could result in another person experiencing the transient emotional reaction of feeling upset, hurt, displeased, offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated (etc, etc, etc).

In secular Australia, The Koran is no more than one of many competing books of religious and political ideas all the way to the charlatanism of L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics.

Nowadays, however, The Koran is uniquely controversial in that claims are being made that its ideas should be insulated from public debate. The most conspicuous pointer to that censoring device is the conflating of religious ideas with ethnicity/race.

The interested Australian non-believer (in the widest sense) really has no substitute for reading the book and making her/his assessment of its ideas. Just as with the other major religious books, the more Australians read The Koran carefully and form and express their individual opinions about the belief system it prescribes, the more the national debate about those ideas (and their reception down the centuries) will be well served. Among other contextual observations which deserve to be noted are the following.

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First, most interested non-believers (and, allowing for rote memorisation, likely many if not most believers) neither speak nor read ancient Arabic, the language by which, so it is said, the messenger Archangel Gabriel imparted, verbatim, the Almighty's words in verse form to a solitary prophet in the Arabian Peninsula fourteen centuries ago.

Secondly, given the claim that those verses were reduced to writing during the century or more after their alleged revelation, there may or may not be a debate about the authenticity of any given Arabic version.

Thirdly, a question arises for English speakers: which translation of which version is to be used?

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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