Australia's terrorism laws 'could criminalise preaching from Qur'an'

Preaching from parts of the Qur’an calling on Muslims to defend their land could fall foul of Australia’s new counter-terrorism laws, senior Islamic clerics fear.

The Australian National Imams Council said the proposed broadening of the offence of advocating terrorism to include those who “promote” and “encourage” violence would have “serious implications on free speech and will have a chilling effect on legitimate religious and political debate”.

In a submission to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security on Wednesday, the organisation, which represents 250 imams around Australia, said a member could find himself charged with advocating terrorism “if he for example advocated the duty of a Muslim to defend his land”.

“This provision is of particular concern to preachers who spend a large proportion of their time teaching and advocating on social justice issues,” the submission said.

Other Muslim groups raised similar concerns about the foreign fighters bill, the second tranche of the new measures.

At hearings before the committee on Wednesday, barrister Ertunc Yasar Ozen from the Muslim Legal Network (MLN) said he was concerned that “reciting verses from the Qur’an in a sermon … could be interpreted as advocating a terrorist act”.

The MLN has called for an exemption for “historical religious stories being used in sermons”.

But South Australian Liberal senator David Fawcett suggested this was unlikely, as extremist groups regularly used “a scriptural basis to advocate … that is it suitable to murder”, and “the fact that they have quoted from a book should not be defence”.

Among its other proposed changes, the bill would allow the government to ban Australian citizens from entering entire countries or regions designated “no-go zones” by the foreign minister.

Travellers to these declared areas would have to prove they were visiting solely for a “legitimate purpose”, such as visiting family or delivering humanitarian aid, in order to avoid prosecution.

The Islamic Council of Victoria warned the measure “strips a large section of Muslim community of the freedom of movement” and gave the government absolute power to decide “what can be considered terrorism and what should be considered legitimate resistance to oppression”.

It cited the example of Palestinian groups fighting against Israeli occupation and factions of the Syrian opposition to president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, saying: “Many in the Muslim community support such movements and deem them to be legitimate forms of armed struggle.

“If the government is to decide what legitimate armed struggle is and what terrorism is and which groups are considered terrorists, then this measure could see to it that there are no voices of disagreement or debate on the subject for fear of prosecution,” it said.

Members of Brisbane’s Muslim community said the bill needed to make it clear how people could prove their travel to a designated area was “a bona fide visit to a family member”.

“It is ironic that [those who fall outside the ‘family’ exemption] may include victims of terrorism activities or family members of victims who require moral and physical support from both friends and family,” they said.