The Death of Free Speech in Europe
(COMMENTARY) Europe took a dystopian turn last week when the European Court of Human Rights ruled on October 25 that governments can punish citizens for criticizing the prophet Muhammad if such criticism “conflicts with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.”
The Strasbourg-based court, which has jurisdiction over every country in Europe except the Vatican and Belarus, upheld 49-year-old Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff’s 2011 conviction in Austria for “disparaging religious doctrines.” Sabaditsch-Wolff, in a 2009 seminar entitled “basic Information on Islam,” called Muhammad a pedophile for having consummated his marriage with his wife Aisha when she was nine years old.
According to Islam’s most authoritative traditions, Muhammad, at the age of 50, married his third wife, Aisha, when she was six years old. Two or three years later, Aisha moved into Muhammad’s household and Muhammad consummated his marriage to Aisha. Nearly all orthodox Muslims believe this tradition and many consider it heresy to deny it. Muslims would argue that it is anachronistic to call Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha “pedophilia” because the ideal of childhood is a modern concept. In Muhammad’s day, child brides were common.
For disagreeing with this characterization of Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha, Sabaditsch-Wolff was fined 480 euros in addition to court fees. Sabaditsch-Wolff took her case to the European Court of Human Rights (the ECHR), which was founded after World War II to safeguard human rights and democracy in Europe. The ECHR’s seven-judge panel ruled that Sabaditsch-Wolff’s statements had gone “beyond the permissible limits of objective debate” because her statements could arouse “justified indignation,” “stir up prejudice,” and “threaten religious peace.”
Sabaditsch-Wolff’s conviction follows a troublesome trend in which European governments have passed increasingly restrictive laws to stifle free speech in the interests of appeasing conservative Muslims.
In April 2007, the European Union criminalized “incitement of racism, xenophobia, or hatred against a racial, ethnic, or religious group” and set a penalty for violations of up to three years in prison. In 2008, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission stated that, with respect to religion, “there is no right to offend,” that “gratuitously offensive” speech is not protected, and that there is a new “right of [religious freedom of] citizens not to be insulted in their religious feelings.” These hate-speech guidelines specified that, in addition to the offending author or artist, those to be prosecuted will include publishers, editors, journalists, art dealers, and museum directors. Richard Kimball wrote that these measures to protect religious sensibilities don’t seem to extend to Christians. When Europe’s “avant-gardist artistic establishment” displays pornographic pictures of Christ, they are called brave pioneers. When they poke fun at Muhammad, they are criminalized as racists.
Paul Marshall, Christopher Caldwell, and Bruce Bawer have documented how, in past two decades, hate-speech laws in the Netherlands, France, Britain, and Canada have led to an alarming rise in judicial harassment for citizens who criticize Islam or express bleak predictions about the role of Islam in Europe’s future. Ironically, some of the critics of Islam who have been most affected by these laws are non-white former Muslims such as Salman Rushdie, Mohamed Rasul and Hirsi Ali. In the last decade, publishers, editors, and authors in France, Canada, Norway, and Italy have been tried for inciting religious hostility and insulting religious sensibilities for criticizing or ridiculing Islam. Michel Houellebecq, Brigitte Bardot, Oriana Fallaci, Alain Finkielkraut, and Geert Wilders have all been sued or prosecuted for hate speech. By subjecting its citizens who are debating issues involving religion and politics to lawsuits and criminal prosecutions, hate-speech laws are certain to stifle free speech, even when prosecutions fail. Ezra Levant, a Canadian publisher and broadcaster who successfully defended himself against anti-Islamic hate-speech charges in Canada, wrote of the cost and ordeal of being tried, “the process is the punishment.”
European judicial harassment for criticizing or ridiculing Islam is especially misguided at a time when writers, artists, and actors are practicing self-censorship out of fear for their safety. In response to threats of violence, Europeans are refusing to publish articles and books, canceling the screenings of plays and movies, and taking down artwork.
In 1994, to honor Voltaire’s 300th birthday, the city government of Geneva, Switzerland organized the performance of all of his theatre plays. When Muslims objected to the staging of Voltaire’s play Mahomet ou le fanatisme, the city government withdrew funding for the play and the play was canceled. In November 2000, a theatre in The Netherlands cancelled a play featuring Muhammad’s young wife Aisha after local imams objected to the way the play portrayed the Prophet Muhammad. In 2005, in response to threatening emails, the Rotterdam Film Festival canceled a screening of van Gogh’s Submission and the World Culture Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden removed from its collection Louzla Darabi’s painting Scènes d’Amour. In September 2006, citing an “incalculable” security risk from indignant Muslims, Berlin Deutsche Oper canceled a production of Mozart’s 1781 opera “Idomeneo.” In July 2018, Random House, citing fears of “stirring up Islamophobia,” canceled the book contract of best-selling author and Islam critic Thilo Sarrazin.
It is puzzling that, at a time of growing self-censorship, a European court that advertises itself as Europe’s protector of human rights would adopt legal norms that punish rather than protect free speech and religious pluralism. Hate speech codes seriously compromise Europe’s liberal heritage and they demoralize Muslims who are working to restrict the scope of blasphemy laws in their own countries. The jury is still out on whether moderate Muslims, often at a great cost to themselves and their families, will defy homicidal theocrats to build free, democratic, and pluralistic societies in Muslim-majority countries. But we in the West cannot expect Muslims to defend free speech if we aren’t willing to defend it ourselves. Hudson Institute scholar Paul Marshall warns that, if the present trend continues, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be “inverted to mandate the use of state power to coerce individuals to respect specific religions.” Religious reformers and dissidents will be “in the judicial docket,” while Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan will “be legitimized, even lauded, for upholding international human rights.”