Under Islamic shari'a law, statements that even a few people may consider blasphemous -- such as young schoolchildren naming a toy teddy bear Mohammad, a common enough name in the Sudan -- might be treated as criminal offences. (Image source: Maxpixel)
There are, of course, social settings where it pays to watch your words. Saying you fancy the looks of a mafioso's new girlfriend could well prove fatal. Spending time with a bunch of Hamas terrorists while expressing your love for Israel might not lead to your premature demise. In London today, young men who make remarks or play music to other youths on the street can wind up stabbed to death. A recent comment on The Independent website claims, "In this country [the UK], some views, regardless of how valid and logical, can result in anything from public rebuke to loss of a job to violence."
For the most part, we learn how to avoid words or actions that may offend someone or some group, especially if it is known to be prone to violence. Yet these misfortunes are rare and we live our lives on the assumption that in democratic countries, we can speak freely within the norms of civil society. We recognize that in many countries, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, or "Islamophobic" hate speech can be reported to the police and lead to the arrest and eventual trial of the speaker. The United States' First Amendment to its Constitution protects its citizens from prosecution for free speech, except where there is a credible threat of "Imminent lawless action."
If angry exchanges take place, they are just a consequence of living in countries where free speech and unfettered opinion are cherished. We have seen what happens in countries where there is no free speech –as the Soviet Union or present day Pakistan (here, here and here); it often is not pretty and in much of the West is regarded as well worth the trade-off.
Particular sensitivities surround religious ideas, and histories. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in the instance of Islam, where anything untoward, especially statements that even a few people may consider blasphemous -- such as young schoolchildren naming a toy teddy bear Mohammad, a common enough name in the Sudan -- might be treated as criminal offences. In the West, within secular democratic states, most churches mercifully appear no longer interested in controlling matters such as blasphemy. When I lived in the Irish Republic in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Catholic Church held a tight grip on society. Books were banned, including by James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and all of Sigmund Freud. Films and plays were also banned or censored. The intolerant ban on Catholics studying at Trinity College Dublin perpetuated injustice. Since the 1960s, however, we now have same-sex marriage, women's right to abortion, and an openly gay Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This year, on October 6, a majority of the Irish voted in a referendum to abolish the blasphemy law that had been in its constitution since 1937. The country has liberalized remarkably.
Ironically, while Ireland's 2010 blasphemy law was still technically on the books (although never actually implemented ), the 57-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – consisting of 56 mostly Muslim states plus "Palestine" -- cited it in 2009 during an attempt to impose an international blasphemy law on the UN. Also in 2009, the government had passed a new Irish Defamation Act that contained a full definition of the blasphemy law (the one abolished this year). This vote took place during a committee meeting for the 13th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The proposal, made on behalf of the OIC by Pakistan, used the Irish definition:
38.1 States parties shall prohibit by law the uttering of matters that are grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents to that religion.
We do not know if the principal motivation for the OIC came less from a concern about religions that Muslims might consider entirely false, abrogated and inferior, such as Judaism or Christianity, or more from a concern that no one should be allowed to criticize Islam.
In any event, Ireland finally woke up to the injustice of its blasphemy law
, and the damage it was doing to its growing reputation as a country purporting to observe human rights.
We found that laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the region's 20 countries (90%) criminalize blasphemy and 14 (70%) criminalize apostasy. While apostasy laws exist in only two other regions of the world – Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa – blasphemy laws can be found in all regions, including Europe (in 16% of countries) and the Americas (29%).
Possibly a better way of expressing concerns about blasphemy laws is to list the 30 Islamic countries that have such regulations, 13 of them imposing the death penalty for the offence. Here they are, in alphabetical order. Some offer life imprisonment. The ones in bold print carry death sentences:
- Palestinian territories
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates (UAE)
- Western Sahara
With this disturbing list in mind, let us consider at least one dangerous development in Europe. More than one Western country is bringing forth legislation that will allow Islamic blasphemy laws in through the back door. In 2017, Canada passed Motion M-103, regarded as a shari'a blasphemy law forbidding free speech about Islam. Although at this stage it is "non-binding, one of its supporters, Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote, "Now that Islamophobia has been condemned, this is not the end, but rather the beginning."
The most recent and glaring of these initiatives involves not a country, but the supranational, unaccountable European Court of Human Rights, a body that issues rulings enforceable in all 57 countries of the OIC that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. Forty-seven of the signatory states are members of the Council of Europe, which is different from the 28-state European Union (although all EU states also belong within the Council).
There are, as well, other bodies to be taken into consideration – ones that open up another Pandora's Box.
Even though the primary focus of the Council of Europe is the wide network of its member states, it also has close links to, and shares activities with, a large range of international institutions. Through a variety of conventions and treaties, it helps set legal standards for those states, both members and non-members. Those non-member states include many familiar Western countries such as the USA, Canada, Israel, and Australia among others. These are states in which the values in areas such as human rights are closely aligned to those of the European member states. Many of the Council's conventions concern human rights, the protection of democracy, and the prevention of racial and other forms of intolerance.
The Council of Europe also engages with a variety of Muslim states, many of which are included on the list above of countries that enact laws on blasphemy. At a minimum, these include Algeria, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia.
The Council also has several other conventions on human rights, including
- The European Convention on Human Rights
- The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture
- The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance
- The Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings
- The Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (The Lanzarote Convention)
- The Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence
These and other positions of the COE clearly align with, and develop, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and are solidly founded within modern Western democratic values.
The Council has set out its human rights principles in its Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Article 9 of that Convention deals with "Freedom of Thought, conscience and religion":
"1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
"2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."
The following article (10) deals with Freedom of Expression. It begins:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers."
However, its second part does permit restrictions:
"in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others."
Of relevance to some of the Islamic states referred to above, Protocol 6 of the Convention deals with the abolition of the death penalty. The Protocol in Article 1 states that: "The death penalty shall be abolished. No one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed."
With these background facts, it is important to look at what happened on October 25 this year when the European Court of Human Rights issued its verdict on a case involving an Austrian woman, called Mrs. S., presumably Elisabeth Sabadtisch-Wolff, and an appeal she had made to the court to protect her right to free speech over a sensitive but factually correct issue concerning the Prophet Muhammad.
There is no room here for a full account of the woman in question, but readers may consult the details by the Soeren Kern here and here. What it amounts to is that Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff had given seminars about Islam in which she had drawn attention to the well-attested fact that Muhammad had married one of his eleven official wives, A'isha, when she was six, and consummated the marriage when she was nine. He apparently continued to have sexual relations with her until his death in 632, when she would have been eighteen.
Sabaditsch-Wolff was reported to the authorities for claiming that Muhammad "liked to do it with children. A 56-year-old and a 6-year-old? . . . What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?". She was arrested and tried in 2009 through 2011, sentenced for "denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion", fined €480 ($625) and threatened with three months in prison. She appealed to Vienna's Provincial Appellate Court, which turned her down. Finally, she took her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. That court, which reported on October 25, 2018, ruled that criticism of Muhammad constitutes incitement to hatred -- meaning that in Europe, criticizing Muhammad is no longer protected free speech. In their judgement, the judges wrote that defamation of Muhammad "goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate" and "could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace."
The judgement will have an ongoing negative impact not only on Sabaditsch-Wolff, who will carry a criminal record for the rest of her life, with the resulting serious effects on her career and other matters, but all of the West, as well. It has certainly banned her and others from exercising their right to free speech asserted in the Convention of the Council of Europe.
Now, it could well be argued, as the ECHR did, that Sabaditsch-Wolff expressed her concerns about Muhammad's sexuality without due attention to the historical and cultural context within which his marriage to A'isha took place. The ECHR did indeed argue this. The ECHR cited the Judgement of the Austrian courts:
"The national courts found that Mrs S. had subjectively labelled Muhammad with pedophilia as his general sexual preference, and that she failed to neutrally inform her audience of the historical background, which consequently did not allow for a serious debate on that issue."
What the court has actually done, however, is rule out the possibility of any debate in which a range of various experts and members of the public could take part, to exchange views on a clearly controversial and unresolved subject. Now, it seems, the only views that will be respected in the public forum are those of devout Muslims.
The ECHR ruling also, unfortunately, will have an even wider impact across Europe and the world. The present writer, unlike Sabaditsch-Wolff, has a doctorate in Islamic studies and languages. If I were to refer to the original Arabic texts of the sacred traditions (ahadith) in which the story of Muhammad's marriage and sexual relations with A'isha -- texts officially held to be factually correct by all Sunni Muslims -- might I too now be put on trial for the same offence? Or if I were to write an article giving details of the approximately 40 individuals who were assassinated for having insulted the prophet on Muhammad's direct orders or whose assassinations were approved by him? What if, in the article, I also added comments on what this might indicate, backed up by chapter and verse of the Muslim histories and sacred traditions that record them, should I then be brought before a court, sentenced, fined or sent to prison?
Will no academic or well-informed individual in future be able to say anything about Muhammad, or will that now be legally prohibited? Moreover, as some Muslims are often offended by even small matters regarding their faith, such as a toy teddy bear named Mohammad or a prisoner on death row declared innocent -- so that mobs take to the streets to condemn, or even kill, those individuals -- what now will not be censored in the West?
It may well be suggested that Muhammad's sexual preferences are matters of purely historical interest, but in many Muslim countries, the proper age for marriage is determined, not according to the standards of the ECHR or other international bodies, but on the strength of the firmly established sacred traditions that help form the basis, alongside the Qur'an and the ahadith, of Shari'a law. In many countries, child brides are still commonplace, often in marriages that are forced – as, for instance here, here, here and here.
In some Muslim countries, such as Yemen, marriages at early ages are not uncommon and may be justified by reference to Muhammad's sexual relations with A'isha at the ages of 9. Underage marriages, considered by some countries child abuse or statutory rape, but acceptable under shari'a law, also take place in Muslim communities in Western countries such as the UK. This alone is a major reason why platforms must be found to debate the issue instead of sweeping it, as something offensive, under the carpet. Ignoring it is offensive.
As noted earlier, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has been trying for years to persuade the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a general blasphemy law that will block anything deemed by someone as critical of one faith alone-- namely Islam.
A few weeks ago, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan informed the UN of an initiative for an international campaign to criminalize criticism of Islam.
This year, a significant and influential Western human rights court has shown the future potentially in store for us. It is not hard to imagine that the OIC is already making plans to employ the ECHR as its agency of choice for officially introducing the law it has coveted for so long: "Defamation of religion," meaning just one faith, Islam. There do not seem any plans afoot to stop criticizing Christians or Jews, or Christianity or Judaism. If the ECHR builds a foundation for universal censorship, how long will it be before the UN Human Rights Council, pressured by its Islamic state members, will fall in line?
I already wrote about this possible threat to all of us:
The chief threat to free speech today comes from a combination of radical Islamic censorship and Western political correctness... [W]e are free to call to account any religion from Christianity to Scientology, Judaism to any cult we choose....
It used to be possible to do this with Islam as well.... But many Muslim bodies -- notably the 57-member-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) -- have been working hard for years to render Islam the only religion, political system and ideology in the world that may not be questioned with impunity. They have tried -- and are in many respects succeeding -- to ring-fence Islam as a creed beyond criticism, while reserving for themselves the right to condemn Christians, Jews, Hindus, democrats, liberals, women, gays, or anyone else in often vile, even violent language. Should anyone say anything that seems to them disrespectful of their faith, he or she will at once be declared an "Islamophobe".
Barely two and a half years later, that may soon come to pass. We need to take swift collective action to fight this death to free speech that such initiatives pose to freedoms that we revere in the West and to which so many millions elsewhere aspire.
Denis MacEoin PhD is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at New York's Gatestone Institute.