Sydney Morning Herald: Selective Tolerance is not Tolerance for All (Nov 19)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Selective tolerance is not tolerance at all
Michael Kirby - Michael Kirby is a judge of the High Court of Australia. This article is based on the Griffith Lecture, which he delivered in Brisbane on Friday.

19 November 2007

Freedom of religion does not have an easy relationship with revealed religions. It is difficult for many believers to tolerate the postulate of error: the possibility that another God or earthly messenger may exist, different from their own, or indeed that there may be no God.

Lina Joy was born in Malaysia into a Muslim family. At birth she was given the name Azalina binti Jailani. In 1998 she decided to convert to Christianity. She announced her intention to marry a Christian man. Under Malaysian law she would be unable to do so unless her new status as a non-Muslim was officially recognised.

Azalina applied to change the name on her identity card to a Christian name. She was successful. However, the regulations required that the identity cards of Muslims state their religion. Therefore, when Lina Joy received her new identity card, the word Islam still appeared. In effect it stood as a barrier to her marriage.

She then applied to have the word Islam removed from her identity card. Her application was rejected. She contested the policy, invoking the Malaysian constitution, which provides that: "Islam is the religion of the federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the federation."

Upon the rejection of Lina Joy's application by both the High Court and Court of Appeal, she appealed to the Federal Court, the country's highest judicial body. She argued the requirement that she must obtain the approval of a third party to exercise her choice of religion was unconstitutional. By a majority of two to one the judges found against her. Inevitably, it was noticed that the two majority judges were Muslim. The dissenting judge was a non-Muslim.

In earlier times Christianity had a very similar approach to renouncing religion. It was most evident during the bloody wars, forced conversions and burnings of heretics that accompanied the Christian Reformation and Counter Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church of my youth in Australia did not permit Protestants to marry in its churches. This was only 50 years ago. We have overcome this sectarian divide.

It is important for those who support the universality of human rights within Islam to realise that the primary source of Islamic principles, the Koran, expressly states that "there is no compulsion in religion". The foundation of human punishment for apostasy by Muslims is essentially found in an interpretation not of the Koran but of the hadith, or recorded sayings, of the prophet Muhammad.

In Australia the case of Lina Joy has come as a surprise. We are entitled to express our concern about it. We know the one universal principle that is shared by all the world's great religions is the Golden Rule. To do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.

One of the foremost critics of the Lina Joy decision was Dr Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore. She observed: "There is a certain agony about this case, which at its heart concerns a woman who wishes to make a change in religious profession and to marry and have a family."

When I read this critique I applauded Dr Thio's views. Imagine my disappointment to read the Hansard record of remarks by the same Dr Thio, a couple of weeks ago, as a member of the Parliament of Singapore, opposing proposals to repeal the criminal laws of Singapore directed against homosexual men.

Speaking from a standpoint as a Christian believer, Dr Thio rallied the opposition to reform. She denounced "the sexual libertine ethos of the wild, wild West". She declared "you cannot make a human wrong a human right". She warned against "slouching back to Sodom". We have all heard all this type of language from religious zealots in Australia. Fortunately, recent evidence suggests that we are growing up.

My point is that it is not good enough for Christians, or people of the Christian tradition, to be selective about tolerance and acceptance. We cannot selectively denounce Islam for its views on apostasy but then do equally nasty and cruel things to others by invoking imperfect understandings of our own religious tradition.

Universal human rights are needed to permit each and every one of us to fulfil ourselves as our unique human natures, intelligence and moral sense demand. For Lina Joy and her fiance this means the freedom to worship God as they believe, and to marry and live, in their own country. For a homosexual man in Singapore, it means freedom from the fear of harassment and humiliation by outdated criminal laws.

Lina Joy should have our support because she is a human being standing up for the integrity of her basic rights. Those rights are not, as the majority judges in Malaysia said of her case, her "whims and fancies". They are precious manifestations of deep-seated human feelings that express part of the very essence of what it is to be a human being.