Last Friday, Sydney Law School became the latest battleground in the never-ending culture war over Islam in Australia. Two courses offered by the Law School, Introduction to Islamic Law, and the newly created Muslims, Minorities and the Law attracted the ire of the right-wing commentariat. “Sydney University wants Sharia Law”, The Daily Telegraph dog-whistled in an article accompanied with entirely unconnected pictures of home-grown Islamic extremists. On Sunrise, David Koch spoke to noted academic experts Mark Latham and Jeff Kennett, who both agreed that the course and the University were a disgrace.
But outside the wild, unhinged imaginations of News Corp’s erstwhile culture warriors, reality presents a far more innocent picture. Sydney Law School has taught various courses on Islamic law for nearly a decade. The courses, taught by academics Salim Farrar and Ghena Krayem explore issues surrounding the development of Islamic law, its interpretation in various contexts, and its interconnections, tensions and conflicts with the domestic law of secular states. Tehreem Amin, a fifth year commerce/law student who took Introduction to Islamic Law last year told Honi that the course did not advocate for Sharia usurping the Australian legal system, but instead looked at the source of Islamic law and its application in various areas, such as crime and banking. “It seems to be similar to other electives offered at the law school, such as Roman Law and Japanese Law, in that they offer a chance to learn about different types of law” Amin said. As the University pointed out in a press release, courses on Islamic Law, and on alternative legal systems more generally, are common in law schools across the world.
The bulk of the Telegraph’s attacks centred on passages from Farrar and Krayem’s book, Accommodating Muslims under the Common Law. However, the actual substance the book is ignored. Instead, specific quotes are presented selectively, and outside their context, so as to maximise outrage, and whip an already Islamophobic readership into paroxysms of fury.
For example, the Telegraph article cites a passage in the book stating that “there is no minimum age for marriage” in some forms of Islamic law, but ignores Farrar and Krayem’s claim that “Muslim communities in the diaspora are not calling to alter the minimum age for marriage”. While the article accuses the authors of advocating for legal recognition of polygamy, Farrar and Krayem state that “there have not been any proposals for legislative amendments from Muslims” generally, much less themselves.
The article’s central claim is that Farrar and Krayem are calling for legal recognition of Sharia. But again, this is a highly reductive, if not wilfully ignorant take on the book’s thesis. Farrar and Krayem take great pains to explain that “there is no evidence that Muslims want special treatment . . .in the form of parallel laws”, and that Muslims “should not expect all of their religious practices to be endorsed” by Australian courts. Instead, the authors argue that the secular state should recognise the importance of religious expression to Muslims. This is further qualified by the argument that only forms of public religious expression which pass a standard of “reasonableness” should be recognised. Farrar and Krayem argue that forms of religiosity can be accommodated, such as enforcing contracts that incorporate elements from Sharia, or allowing Muslim women to wear a Niqab in public. However, this standard would exclude more extreme forms of religious expression, which are incompatible with contemporary constitutional and human rights norms.
Much of the hysteria coming from the Murdoch Press stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Sharia Law. Indeed, the word Sharia is often used to conjure up the most violent excesses of radical Islam. Yet in a far more nuanced discussion on ABC’s The Drum, Australian Catholic University academic Joshua Roose described Sharia as “incredibly diverse”. Much like the Common Law, Sharia is constantly evolving, and subject to myriad interpretations. Indeed, Farrar and Krayem note that most people in the Muslim diaspora have rejected ‘extremist’ interpretations of the law which would appear incompatible with contemporary Australian norms. As Ali Kadri, of the Islamic Council of Queensland, told The Drum, most Muslims are following Sharia merely by practising their faith. Much in the same way that Christians go to church and follow the Bible (and generally ignore Leviticus), Sharia provides a religious and moral framework for Muslims. Neither religious system seriously poses a threat to Australian legal system, but instead, as Farrar and Krayem argue, can certainly provide coexistent forms of obligation for religious people.
Ultimately, the furore over the courses is yet another glimpse into the increasingly irrational worldview of Murdoch’s culture warriors. It’s a world where even the most innocent, standard academic activities are blown out of all proportion and seen as a threat to ‘Australian values’, where Muslims are consistently demonised, and where anybody who dares question conservative groupthink has a target on their back. At the very least, it seems hugely hypocritical that commentators and media organisations who argue for the freedom to make racially charged claims are such staunch opponents of academic freedom. In a week in which Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphomassane was told to “go back where he came from” by Rowan Dean, and a shock-jock called for Yasmin Abdel-Magied to be run over by a car, Farrar and Krayem are simply the latest people of colour to be bullied by our increasingly bold, tasteless and reactionary right-wing press. The fact that Farrar and Krayem were simply doing what academics should — researching complex contemporary issues and exposing students to new ideas – was irrelevant to the Telegraph. That they were two Muslim academics teaching about Islam was enough to make them the targets of a vitriolic, baseless smear. Nor did it matter that their research raises serious and nuanced points about the relationship between religion and the law in an increasingly multicultural society.
Never let facts, or nuance get in the way of some good old Islamophobia.