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How anti-Muslim prejudice gets dressed up as feminism

Islam is a medieval religion that oppresses women, provides cover for forced marriages and honour killings, treats female flesh as shameful and allows Muslim men to treat their women as personal property.

But none of us can say so out loud in our so-called pluralistic society because political correctness has made people too scared to offend.

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So runs the line of much anti-Muslim sentiment in this country and abroad, among people who are just smart enough to hide their naked prejudice behind some sort of veil – and the veil of choice has become concern for the rights of women.

The "fear of causing offence" has become, we are told, a powerful gag that impedes our freedom of speech and stops people from telling the truth about Islam.

Even if this were true, which is demonstrably isn't, it is worth reminding ourselves that the fear of causing offence is the glue that holds civil society together.

It is overwhelmingly a force for good.

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Last week I attended a fundraising dinner for the Q Society, which describes itself as an "Islam-critical organisation".

They insist they are not anti-Muslim.

The two female speakers at the event were novelist Gabrielle Lord and Kirralie Smith, who ran at the last election as a NSW Senate candidate for the Australian Liberty Alliance.

Both women gave impassioned speeches in which they described having met Muslim women, in Australia and around the world, who had been the victims of Islamic practices, subjected to violence and forced marriages.

Parts of the speeches would not have been out of place at a UN forum for women's rights.

But the rhetoric that surrounded these pleas for Muslim women's rights told a different story.

People spoke of "them", of "wars" between "us" and "them", and of course cartoonist Larry Pickering let the cat out of the bag when he told the crowd he "can't stand Muslims".

Smith has since said she didn't hear those comments and disagrees with them.

But respect for women is not something Pickering is renowned for, and it didn't ooze from the cartoon of his that depicted a woman in a niqab being raped – and which was auctioned for the Q Society cause.

And what is that cause, exactly?

It is the defence of a defamation action brought by a halal certifier.

The Q Society folk are not fundraising for a foundation that helps at-risk Muslim women. They don't want to build a shelter for Muslim women fleeing family violence. They are not asking for resources to help girls subjected to genital mutilation done in the name of Islam.

Likewise, while Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie campaigns against the burka, in part because it's oppressive of women, she also manages to imply veiled women might be security risks – terrorists, in fact.

The people who claim Muslim women are victims of their religion are generally the first to accuse Muslim people of "playing the victim".

This is what Lambie said to the Muslim youth leader Yassmin Abdel-Magied on last Monday night's fiery Q&A.

Nearly a decade ago, I worked as religious affairs reporter for the Herald.

As part of the job, I visited mosques and met sheikhs and imams, as well as ordinary Muslims. I was acutely aware of how few Muslim people were in my own circle.

I tried to be culturally sensitive and objective – professional, in other words – but I admit I was taken aback when a Shiite imam refused to shake my hand because it was improper for him to have physical contact with a woman. I also felt uncomfortable with the back-of-the-bus gallery for women worshippers at Lakemba mosque.

Those things were hard to square off with the notion that Islam is a religion that treats women equally. I find it difficult to swallow the idea that Islam is the most feminist religion, as Abdel-Magied insisted on Q&A

But it is equally hard to argue convincingly that the best way to promote female equality in Australia's Muslim subcultures is to demonise the entire religion and alienate the majority of ordinary Muslim Australians who are just living their lives.

Wajiha Ahmed is a Pakistani-born, Sydney-based lawyer and a non-practising Muslim. She feels the presumption that all Muslim women are oppressed is unjustified.

Ten years ago she took part in a cross-cultural forum between Muslims and non-Muslims called the Sydney Leadership Dialogue.

It was organised by Macquarie Bank and led by Ross Cameron, the former Liberal MP who also spoke at last week's Q Society dinner.

Ahmed participated in the "dialogue" because she wanted to help the cause of social cohesion after the upset of the 2005 Cronulla riots.

She was horrified to see Cameron had attended the Q Society dinner, describing it as a "180-degree turn" from the kinds of sentiments he spouted back then.

In an article Cameron wrote in 2007 for Refugee Transitions magazine, he said "too often, traditional media see their interest as projecting, sharpening and magnifying the fears of their audience, further locking-in positions, polarising people who could be friends and evaporating the precious goodwill that still exists".

It's a laudable sentiment. If only it could jump off the page.

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