NEW YORK- Daniel Scot steps to the lectern wearing a buttoned-up shirt and carefully combed, close-cut hair-clearly the mathematics professor that he is, more at home in a classroom of students than this ballroom of chandeliers and cocktail dresses. A bit of numbers and history is necessary to understand what has summoned the 55-year-old Pakistani-born pastor to be guest of honor at the Metropolitan Club, a Renaissance revival mansion commissioned by J.P. Morgan just a block off New York's Central Park.
Scot's journey to the lectern began nearly five long years-and over half a million dollars-ago. In March 2002 he spoke at a seminar on the differences between Christianity and Islam and described ways Christians can reach out to Muslims. Like his speech in New York, his talks are sprinkled with frequent reference to passages in the Quran, traced out with the precision of a quadratic equation. For those remarks an Islamic council brought him up on charges of "religious vilification" and a judge found him guilty on 19 counts.
In his native Pakistan, where Christians make up less than 3 percent of the population and blasphemy laws quickly lead to death sentences, such a ruling would be tame. But this case unfolded in Australia, where Scot has worked as a professor and pastor since 1987 and is now a naturalized citizen. The charges were brought in Melbourne, a city better known for lively coffee bars and generous beaches than for restricting free speech. But a law passed in Victoria state in 2001, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, criminalized not only race discrimination but any "vilifying conduct" against "a religious belief or activity."
Similar laws have been drafted but not passed in three other Australian states, including Sydney's New South Wales. A law that bans "stirring up hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds" has been circulating the British parliament since 2001, repeatedly amended or voted down by the House of Lords. Such laws, legal experts contend, could ban both the Bible and the Quran from public debate and other forums. In Britain even comedians weighed in against such a bill, concerned that jokes with religious or ethnic tones could be criminalized under the legislation's vague wording. In Canada Islamic groups this month are petitioning the government to deport a Muslim convert to Christianity after he spoke against Islamic extremism at a church in Ontario. They too cite an obscure criminal code against spreading hatred (see "Hate or debate").
Scot calls these campaigns "intellectual terrorism." He blames Islamic groups that take advantage of open democracy in countries where Muslim populations are growing rapidly. They lobby in favor of the restrictions as a way to stifle legitimate debate over Islamic-inspired terrorism and the meaning of Quranic texts. "Teaching about Islam is not a popular subject, especially if you know the Quran," Scot told the Jan. 26 gathering sponsored by the Kairos Journal, where he received an annual award honoring pastoral courage and fidelity to Scripture.
Scot grew up in a Christian home in Pakistan and attended grade schools run by missionaries before graduating from an all-Muslim high school in Karachi and from the University of Karachi. He earned two degrees in applied mathematics and a seminary degree in theology. In a witness statement given at his trial in 2003, he told a Victoria court he became a Christian in 1973 despite a state education where he "read and re-read the Quran in its entirety at least a hundred times, and have extensively read and studied commentaries on it." That expertise helped him to become one of only two Christians in Pakistan allowed to teach at the university level. It also led to his forced departure from Pakistan in 1986.
After five senior professors asked him to convert to Islam and launched an investigation into his religious beliefs, he became the first person successfully charged under Pakistan's then-new blasphemy laws.
Quoting the Quran and the hadiths (collected sayings of Muhammad), Scot told the court that Muhammad offered no assurance of personal salvation while Jesus Christ offered full assurance of salvation. Once the charges were publicized, a mob came after Scot with pistols and knives, and he was forced into hiding in a church. When the mob threatened to burn down all the churches in the area, he fled the country.
In Australia he taught math at the University of Queensland and became an Assemblies of God pastor in 1995. Two years later he formed Ibrahim Ministries International to encourage Christian awareness of Islam and Christian ministry among Muslims, giving seminars and training sessions around Australia and around the world. His wife Mariot, with whom he has five children, taught similar sessions on ministering to Muslim women and to ex-Muslims.
Meanwhile, Employment Opportunity Commission (EOC) workers were holding seminars to train Australians about the reach of the new anti-vilification law. When EOC officer May Heloud, a former leader in the Islamic Council of Victoria, learned that Scot and a colleague, Daniel Nalliah, were speaking at a March 2002 seminar, she urged three Australian converts to Islam to attend. They subsequently filed a complaint with the agency under the new law. Soon both Daniels were in court.
Based on his statements at the seminar, Scot was cited for 19 counts of vilifying Muslims. Yet in cross-examination it became clear that 15 of the 19 statements were direct quotes from the Quran. "In essence, the judge's complaint was that Daniel Scot was educating Christians using the Quran," said Mark Durie, vicar of St. Mary's Anglican Church in Victoria. Durie, with a Ph.D. in linguistics and the study of Islamic tribes, was called as a witness at the trial and attended a previous seminar on Muslims led by Scot, but his testimony was rejected by the judge.
Many Australian papers editorialized in Scot's favor, and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt noted that Scot "actually understood the Quran far better than did the people complaining he'd misquoted it." Nonetheless, Victoria Judge Michael Higgens heard in full seven witnesses for the complainant, the Islamic Council of Victoria, while five witnesses for Scot and Nalliah, including Durie, had part or all of their testimony (including a transcript of the seminar) thrown out. Excluded were witnesses who said Scot not only quoted from the Quran but also discussed practical ways to show love to Muslims.
In ruling against Scot and Nalliah in 2004, the judge ordered the two not only to pay court costs but to take out full-page ads in Australia's leading newspapers apologizing for vilifying Muslims. The ads would have cost $70,000 and court costs at that time exceeded $600,000. "When I came to Australia I had $6," said Scot. During the legal proceedings, "some months we received $4,000 in donations and had $10,000 in expenses."
The case remained under persistent review, and Scot did not place the ads. But it took two years before a three-judge appeals court panel in Victoria conclusively overturned the verdict late last year. The panel rejected the lower court's interpretation of the law that to speak out against Muhammad or Islam is to "vilify" Muslims. It ordered the Islamic Council to cover half the defendants' legal costs. The appeals panel also rejected much of the evidence against Scot as "inaccurate." But the case is not over: The appeals panel ordered a new hearing with a new judge.
"The court made an important distinction between hatred of beliefs and hatred of the person," said Durie. "This is a profoundly Christian perspective but Islam denies it." Durie also told WORLD that the case shows that "church leaders cannot afford to be asleep on their watch. This law was brought in while the church was asleep by politicians who did not comprehend what they were doing."
Scot told his New York audience the case has sober lessons for lawmakers and judges who debate such laws, as well as pastors and others who could be tried under them. But he said there is one lesson he is not taking to heart: To keep silent about Islam.