A VITALLY important case for the future of free speech in Europe comes before the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) next week.
During 2008/09 Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff led a series of seminars for the Freedom Education Institute, a political academy linked to the Austrian Freedom Party (now part of the government). Amongst the 30 or so FP members attending the seminars was an undercover journalist for the Left-wing weekly magazine News.
Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff was reported to the police, who questioned her concerning statements she had made about the Prophet Muhammad. Charges were brought by the public prosecutor for hate crime under Section 283 of the Austrian Criminal Code. Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted of ‘disparaging religious doctrines’, fined €480 and ordered to pay costs.
Her crime? She told attendees, in forthright but accurate terms that the founder of Islam, considered by Muslims the perfect man, married a six-year-old girl and consummated the marriage when she was nine, and that this would be considered paedophilia in Europe today.
An appeal to the Austrian Supreme Court against her conviction failed. An appeal to the ECHR also failed.
In considering whether the conviction violated the right to freedom of expression, the seven judges of the ECHR said people who practise a religion are not exempt from criticism. However, it also observed that the subject matter of the case ‘was of a particularly sensitive nature’ and the potential effects of such statements depend on the country in which they are made. Austria has a Muslim population of 8 per cent and the ECHR decided that the Austrian court’s decision ‘served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace’.
As well as relativising paedophilia, the ECHR ruling in effect means that throughout Europe criticism of Muhammad may no longer be regarded as protected free speech but rather constitutes incitement to hatred. This has created, in all but name, an Islamic blasphemy law.
By invoking the politically slippery notion of ‘religious peace’, the ECHR ruling has effectively given a free speech veto to those who would use violence in defence of their religious beliefs. This means that the danger to peace is seen as occurring because Muhammad is critiqued, and not because of how his followers might violently react to honest critique.
The claim that speech should be forbidden because it threatens ‘religious peace’ is to capitulate to religious extremists. It is not uncommon for riots and deaths to follow whenever Muslims believe someone has ‘insulted’ Muhammad.
In 2015 the great and the good marched through Paris under banners proclaiming ‘Je suis Charlie’ after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in which 12 people were gunned down in Paris over cartoons in the magazine ironically mocking the violent tendencies of Muhammad and many of his followers. Perhaps in 2019 the banners should read ‘Je ne suis plus Charlie’, ‘I am no longer Charlie’.
Caving to the threat of violence ultimately emboldens the violent; it never appeases them.
If European guarantees of freedom of speech do not include the right to say things about religion others find offensive, such guarantees are worthless. If anyone can shut someone else up simply by complaining of hurt feelings, society has become a dictatorship of the easily and eagerly offended.
In the Arab press, the ECHR judgment was greeted with enthusiasm and presented as a ‘historic decision’, or as ‘a victory for the Islamic world after the crisis of the cartoons published several times by several European newspapers’.
Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan ‘welcomed the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights not to authorise acts of profanity under the guise of freedom of expression’. This is the same Imran Khan who declared recently, before an audience of imams, his will to ‘support and defend’ article 295c of the Penal Code, which punishes by death or life imprisonment anyone who ‘defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad’.
Some of the highest Islamic authorities have also commented on this judgment, to rejoice and take advantage of it.
The Observatory of Islamophobia of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the highest authority of Sunni Islam, expressed its support for the court’s decision. It claimed it would contribute ‘to reduce the problems of Islamophobia’.
Likewise, the Secretary General of the largest world federation of Koranic schools (10,000 madrassas), Qari Hanif Jalandhari, saw in this decision ‘a very important step’.
Dr Tahir Amin, Vice Chancellor Bahauddin Zakariya University, one of Pakistan’s leading universities, said that the ECHR’s verdict is undoubtedly a historic decision and to be welcomed. ‘When one hurts the feelings of Muslims, the reaction is very natural and justified,’ he said. He added that Western people should avoid hurting others’ religious feelings.
Perhaps we should rejoice to see the highest judicial authority in Europe agreeing with the highest Islamic authorities on the respect to be shown to Muhammad. It is possible to see a certain nobility in the respect accorded to Islam; a respect perceived as all the more remarkable as it is often accompanied by disregard for Europe’s own religious tradition.
Recent cases judged by the ECHR, in good post-modern fashion, appear more responsive to criticisms of Islam than to attacks directed against Christianity. In 2018, the year it rejected Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff’s appeal, it granted €37,000 in damages to Pussy Riot, the punk rock group convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The ECHR said Russia had violated the Pussy Riot members’ rights to liberty, a fair trial and freedom of expression in their 2012 arrest.
The ECHR also held, on the grounds of freedom of expression, that Lithuania could not prohibit the dissemination of blasphemous advertisements presenting Christ and the Virgin Mary as tattooed and lascivious junkies.
Next Tuesday, the ECHR must make the vitally important decision as to whether it agrees to refer the case for an appeal in the Grand Chamber for a new and final judgment. Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff’s request for referral is supported by 60,000 signatories of a petition to defend the right to criticise Islam in Europe.