Secularism is a concept that some tend to struggle with, especially if it appears to conflict with their own prejudices or fears. There is often a consistency issue. Secularism is of course a system that has no equal yet conceived, in the guarantee of fundamental rights. It ensures that no belief has a place of privilege above any others, nor violates the liberty of others. It is a line of equality, separating the framework of state from the individual’s right to believe, worship, and express unharmed. It is my right to congregate, express and to worship (if I suddenly decided to convert) according to my conscience, as it is yours. It is my right to build a private place of worship, as it is yours.
The city of Bendigo in Australia – a city I spent some time in a couple of years back – is about to begin building its first Mosque. Until now, Muslims in Bendigo have worshipped in small rooms at La Trobe University, that are becoming too crowded. The planned Mosque is privately funded by the Australian Islamic Mission, and will have prayer rooms, a sports hall, will include community relations meetings, and conduct weddings and funerals. I see no reason why anyone would oppose this. But predictably, a lot do.
The council and planners approved planning, because there is absolutely no reasonable grounds not to. It was approved along with a new Church built and funded by “Catch the Fire Ministries” a ministry run by young earth creationist Daniel Nalliah. Nalliah is an interesting chap. He insisted he felt “sick to the stomach” watching former Prime Minister Julia Gillard shake hands with former Greens Leader Bob Brown, because Gillard was “living in sin” for not being married and yet living with her partner, and because Brown was a “practising homosexual”. Those two shaking hands, made Nalliah “sick to the stomach”. In similar bouts of crazy, Nalliah once claimed that the Black Saturday bushfires were God’s wrath for Australia decriminalising abortion. Nalliah also once called on his followers to pull down Mosques, Temples, Brothels and Gambling spots because they were “Satan’s stronghold”. He has also stated that children should be protected from gay people, and he opposes gay marriage (another right that he wishes for himself, yet not for others). There seems to be very little opposition to a mad, offensive, creationist cult leader building a religious centre in Bendigo.
A ‘Stop the Mosque in Bendigo’ page sprung up on Facebook recently, with over 3,500 supporters. I was expecting a reasoned argument, perhaps evidence that Muslims in Bendigo were hoping to use the mosque for radicalisation purposes. That would have been rational grounds to oppose it. Indeed, I would have opposed it. But as it turns out, much of the opposition to the mosque is based solely people’s objections to Islam itself. They don’t like the faith, and so they believe the Mosque should be stopped. This strikes me as wholly anti-secular in itself. By this logic, Australians who happen to be Muslims may dislike Atheists meeting up, and so seek to stop it by appealing to the council. They have as much right to do that, as those hoping to stop the Mosque from being built. I can imagine the outcry would be tremendous if that were to occur.
Those against it, seem rather ironically to be offended by the idea of a mosque in Bendigo. Ironic, because using ‘offense’ as a weapon to oppress, is very much out of the religious – and very recently, the Islamic – playbook itself. Instead of engaging critically, and working to ensure transparency within religious buildings – with education, and content, for example – they instead choose to aim their opposition at the right to worship freely in a private setting itself.
For what it’s worth, I take issue with most faiths – including Islam, as regular readers of my blog will perhaps note – but I recognise the incredibly important right for all private citizens to believe whatever they choose to believe, and their secular right to choose where to worship, as long as they abide by the rule of law and do not harm the freedom of others. The state should not prevent that right. Secularism guarantees freedoms and protection for all under the law. Like every other organisation, if they do not abide by the rule of law, they may be shut down. It their members do not abide by the rule of law, they may be imprisoned. And rightfully so. But we must – if we are to call ourselves secular, and if we are to abhor supremacy – recognise that religious folk have the right to set up a private place of worship. I recognise those rights, because I hold sacred those very same rights for myself. If I were to begin an Atheist Group, or a Secularist Group, and if I wished to privately fund and build a Hall where we met up, I cannot imagine too many religious folk would object nor try to prevent my Atheist or Secularist Hall from being built. The ones that did, would rightfully be condemned for attempting to infringe upon my liberty. The same is true when applied the opposite way.
Muslims already live in Bendigo, they already worship in Bendigo. They are as much a part of Bendigo as Christians. A Mosque is simply a more comfortable place for them to worship, than a cramped university space. There is no faith-based reason reason for a council to not accommodate this. It shouldn’t even need to be said, but it’s also true that muslims work in Bendigo, they contribute, they save lives in hospitals, and educate children in schools, they are citizens with the same rights as every other person. Those rights are not negated by their choice of God. This is equally true for Christians in Bendigo. Whilst Muslims currently have no temple of worship in Bendigo, Christians have twenty Christian temples and centres in and around Bendigo, as far as I can tell. Anglican churches, Greek orthodox churches, Assembly of God, Catholic churches, and the massive Sacred Heart Cathedral, the beautifully constructed building in the photo above. And now with one more on its way run by a creationist dedicated to restricting the rights of anyone he doesn’t particularly like. Close to Bendigo, is the Atisha Centre, a Buddhist centre. If you support the right for Christians and Buddhists to build places of worship, but you would happily restrict the building of places of worship for other faiths simply because you don’t like what it is they believe, you are severely anti-secular. You advocate oppression.
The Facebook group dedicated to opposing the Mosque (but not the Catch the Fire Ministry) says:
“We live in a democracy and we are exercising OUR right to say NO to what happens in OUR country.”
– They’re quite right, they live in a democracy and they have the right to oppose. That’s absolutely correct. But I take issue with the phrase “OUR country”. This subtly hints that their right to oppose should be considered more important – as non-Muslim citizens of Australia – than the secular right of Muslim citizens of Australia – whose country it also is – to worship where they choose. This group therefore, are attempting to place themselves above the line of secular equality mentioned earlier, without anyone’s approval. Perhaps all planning permissions should be sent to this group, before any private building is erected in Bendigo. Pushing for the council – the state – to prevent Mosques being built, is forcefully restricting a particular belief. Again, this is oppression.
According to the Bendigo Islamic Association, one of the aims of the Mosque in Bendigo is to:
“Play a central role in encouraging dialogue and harmony amongst the multicultural and multi-faith
society of Bendigo.”
– This must be welcomed, and it certainly isn’t on offer from anything Daniel Nalliah has ever produced.
To deny others the right to worship freely where they choose, and to develop property that they are as entitled as you to develop, denying them purely on the basis of what they choose to believe is an act of supremacy. If we apply it to other fundamental rights, we see the sinister nature of it. Indeed, if you were to wish the right to speak freely and to criticise a faith, whilst at the same time petitioning to prevent those with faith from speaking freely about their faith or from criticising your beliefs, you would be condemned, and rightly so. If, as a white person, you were to permit yourself the right to go to certain colleges and universities that you would not permit non-white people the right to attend – as in pre-civil rights America – you are a supremacist. This is no different. Denying a right for others, that you yourself have always had, and to couple this with believing you have the inherent privileged right to block the right of others to worship in their own privately run and funded temple, according to their own conscience, despite the absolute fact that you are equal to those people according to the law and citizenship, is the very essence of anti-secularism. However, If you wish to preserve rights that you enjoy, you must defend those rights for others, whether you like their beliefs or not.
If you wish your particular gender, or sexuality, or race, or religion to deviate from that line of equality, or to push others below it, you are going to have to work particularly hard to convince the rest of us to bow down in unquestioning subordination to your new found desire for supremacy. You must provide a reasonable argument as to why you think your dislike of a certain faith puts you in a unique and privileged position in which you’re willing to permit Christians – including creationists with incredibly offensive views – the right to build 20+ temples and centres, but not others. If your argument stands up to scrutiny, it will be accepted, otherwise, it fails.
As someone who values secularism, and respect for fundamental rights, I fully support the establishment of a Mosque in Bendigo.