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From the president: We need to talk

Every Issue

Cite as: (2007) 81(12) LIJ, p. 4


Australians have to find a new way to talk about issues such as terrorism and cultural difference.

As with all presidents, I have proudly introduced several speakers at Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) President’s Luncheons, and the last speaker for 2007 was eminent Muslim spokesperson and lawyer Waleed Aly.

Named this year as one of The Bulletin’s “Smart 100”, Mr Aly’s current role as lecturer at the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University and his background as an award-winning journalist made his talk incredibly fascinating.

Without notes, he talked to a spellbound room about his observations on where we’re at globally with the Muslim-Christian divide.

He talked about the stupidity of the so-called global War on Terror and its effect on everyday lives. Tragically, he said, many young Muslims believed they lived “in a world that hates us for what we are ... we can never do anything to gain their [non-Muslims] acceptance”. [See also, “Understanding the terrorism argument”, page 29 of this month’s LIJ.]

He said both sides were entrenched in the same arguments – “they started it” and “we have to take a hard line to stop it”.

The poignant irony is the frightening symmetry of the opposing sides’ arguments.

This is why Mr Aly concludes in his latest book People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West that: “If a gulf exists between the Muslim and Western worlds, it will be people whose knowledge and experience spans both, who are capable of bridging it, for the simple powerful reason that they are capable of seeing the humanity in both”.

Mr Aly has called for both sides to begin a cultural conversation. He acknowledges that listening to the argument of the “enemy” is not easy, but unless people arrive at an accepted way of speaking and listening they will remain entrenched in their respective prejudices.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Aly’s point of view and believe that lawyers, as people trained in negotiation and discussion, have a key role to play in promoting this type of discussion.

A major impact of the so-called global War on Terror has been the dramatic erosion of civil liberties in Australia.

In the past six years, at least 28 new pieces of legislation have been introduced in the areas of terrorism and security.

Just one of the myriad ways in which terrorism laws have eroded our civil liberties is the new power ASIO has to detain people to obtain information, even if there is no suspicion that the person is actually involved in terrorist activity.

This legislation removes the right to silence and restricts access to legal representation.

A person detained for questioning is prohibited for two years from telling anyone about the interview process or the information that ASIO has. If they breach this prohibition, they can face five years in jail.

I am writing this column in the lead-up to the 24 November federal election.

Most of the changes to federal laws have bipartisan support, with no indication from the ALP that the legislation will be amended or repealed if it wins the federal election.

If Labor is elected, I hope that it will step up to the mark and immediately review these laws.

Similarly, if the Coalition is returned, it is my hope that it will immediately review the laws it has introduced.

A much fairer balance is needed between the need to protect society from threats and the need to ensure our own laws do not make us prisoners in our own land.

Finally, as I come to the end of my second term as president of the LIV, I would like to thank all the members I have had the good fortune to meet during the year.

Your support, enthusiasm and ideas are the lifeblood of the LIV and are greatly appreciated by myself, the Council and the LIV staff.

I have enjoyed the privilege of representing you, the members, during 2007 and wish you and your families peace over the coming festive season.

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