The Dutch parliament has approved a motion to revoke a law that makes it a crime to insult God.
Free speech activists say the move represents a significant victory at a time when Muslim groups are stepping up pressure on European governments to make it a crime to criticize of Islam or the prophet Mohammed.
Article 147 of the Dutch Penal Code was drafted in the 1930s and had not been used for half a century; leading legislators said there was no longer a need for it. The decision to abolish the law follows national elections in September 2012, in which two liberal parties (the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA) emerged victorious.
The issue was brought to the attention of the Dutch parliament in June 2011, when Geert Wilders, a MP who crusades for free-speech, was acquitted after facing trial on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims. The judge ruled that Wilders had the right to criticize Islam, even though his opinions may have insulted many Muslims.
Wilders, who leads the Freedom Party, had described Islam as "fascist," and compared Islam's holy book, the Koran, to Adolf Hitler's political manifesto "Mein Kampf." Amsterdam judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders's statements were directed at Islam, not at Muslims, and ruled that the statements were "acceptable within the context of public debate."
Wilders said at the time that the verdict was "not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands." But many European countries still have blasphemy laws which restrict freedom of expression, and in some cases, such laws have been replaced with more general legislation that criminalizes religious hatred.
The decision to scrap the country's blasphemy law has been hailed internationally by activists, who have long called it outdated and a threat to free speech.
The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters, issued a report about "The Issue of Regulation and Prosecution of Blasphemy, Religious Insult, and Incitement to Religious Hatred." The report noted that, in Europe, blasphemy is an offense in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and San Marino.
In addition, "Religious Insult" is a criminal offense in Andorra, Cyprus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland.
Britain, for example, abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales in 2008. But in 2006 the British government enacted the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which created a new crime of intentionally stirring up religious hatred against people on religious grounds. The new law has led to zealousness bordering on the irrational.
In Nottingham, for example, the Greenwood Primary School cancelled a Christmas nativity play because it interfered with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. In Scarborough, the Yorkshire Coast College removed the words Christmas and Easter from their calendar not to offend Muslims. In Scotland, the Tayside Police Department apologized for featuring a German shepherd puppy as part of a campaign to publicize its new non-emergency telephone number. As Islamic legal tradition holds that dogs are impure, the postcards used in the campaign were potentially offensive to the city's 3,000-strong Muslim community;
In Glasgow, a Christian radio talk show host was fired after a debate between a Muslim and a Christian on whether Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life." In Birmingham, two Christians were told by police "you cannot preach here, this is a Muslim area." In Cheshire, two students at the Alsager High School were punished by their teacher for refusing to pray to Allah as part of their religious education class. Also in Cheshire, a 14-year-old Roman Catholic girl who attends Ellesmere Port Catholic High School was branded a truant by teachers for refusing to dress like a Muslim and visit a mosque.
In Liverpool, a Christian couple was forced to sell their hotel after a female Muslim guest accused the pair of insulting her during a debate about Islam. In London, Rory Bremner, a political comedian, said that every time he writes a sketch about Islam, he fears that he is signing his own death warrant. At the same time, Scotland Yard says that Muslims who launch a shoe at another person are not committing a crime because the practice is Islamic symbolism.
In recent months, however, Muslims have been lobbying to reinstate blasphemy laws in Britain. A petition reportedly sent to British Prime Minister David Cameron reads: "It is axiomatic that Great Britain is a key player in global harmony. British parliamentarians have made outstanding progress in eradicating racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination, inequalities and other factors causing hurt to all citizens. The trust and hope of millions of British Muslims is placed in yourselves as representatives and Members of Parliament to call for changes in the law to protect the honor of Faith Symbols of Islam and other faiths."
In February 2012, it emerged that a Muslim activist group with links to the Muslim Brotherhood had asked the British government to restrict the way the British media reports about Muslims and Islam.
More recently, a Muslim lobbying group called ENGAGE launched an exhibition and a month-long campaign "Islamophobia Awareness Month," highlighting the spread of "Islamophobia" in Britain. The exhibition was held in the British Parliament and ENGAGE activists pressed Members of Parliament to strengthen the existing religious hatred law to provide more protections for Muslims.
In Ireland, a new blasphemy law went into effect in January 2010. The Irish Defamation Act, which created the crime of blasphemous libel, makes "publication or utterance of blasphemous matter" punishable by a fine of up to €25,000 ($32,500).
According to the Irish Times, Ireland's blasphemy law is being cited by Islamic states "as justification" for persecuting religious dissidents. Pakistan, for example, has cited the Irish statute at the United Nations to support its own blasphemy laws.
In Denmark, blasphemy is outlawed by Paragraph 140 of the penal code, which states: "Anyone who publicly mocks or insults the tenets of faith or worship of any religious community existing in this country legally will be punished by fine or imprisonment for up to four months." The law has not been used since 1938. Measures were proposed in 2004 to abolish the blasphemy article, but the proposals were not adopted and the law remains on the books.
The rules against hate speech and racism are set down in the infamous Paragraph 266b of the Danish penal code, which states: "Whoever publicly, or with intention to disseminating in a larger circle makes statements or other pronouncements, by which a group of persons is threatened, derided or degraded because of their race, color of skin, national or ethnic background, faith or sexual orientation, will be punished by fine or imprisonment for up to two years."
Free speech advocate Lars Hedegaard was prosecuted under this statute for remarks made to a blogger in December 2009 criticizing Islam. He was finally acquitted by the Danish Supreme Court in April 2012, which ruled that it could not be proven that he intended the statements to be published.
Also in Denmark, Jesper Langballe, a Danish politician and Member of Parliament, was found guilty of hate speech in December 2010 for saying that honor killings and sexual abuse take place in Muslim families.
Langballe was denied the opportunity to prove his assertions: under Danish law, it is immaterial whether a statement is true or false. All that is needed for a conviction is for someone to feel offended. Langballe was summarily sentenced to pay a fine of 5,000 Danish Kroner ($850) or spend ten days in jail.
In Finland, blasphemy is covered by Section 10 of Chapter 17 of the Criminal Code. In March 2009, Jussi Kristian Halla-aho, a politician and well-known political commentator, was taken to court on charges of "incitement against an ethnic group" and "breach of the sanctity of religion" for saying that Islam is a religion of pedophilia.
A Helsinki court later dropped the charges of blasphemy but ordered Halla-aho to pay a fine of €330 ($450) for disturbing religious worship. The Finnish public prosecutor, incensed at the court's dismissal of the blasphemy charges, appealed the case to the Finnish Supreme Court. In June 2012 the Supreme Court found Halla-aho guilty of both disturbing religious worship and ethnic agitation.
In Germany, blasphemy is covered by Chapter 11, Article 166 of the German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch), which states: "Whoever publicly or by dissemination of writings defames, in a manner suitable to disturb the public peace, the substance of the religious or world view conviction of others, shall be fined or imprisoned for up to three years."
In February 2006, a German political activist named Manfred van H. received a one year suspended jail sentence and 300 hours of community service for breaching Article 166. He had had rolls of toilet paper with the words "Koran, the Holy Koran" printed on them and distributed to mosques and media outlets. This followed the London bombings in July 2005 and Manfred claimed his motives were "to find out who is on whose side in today's Germany."
In Austria, where the government of Saudi Arabia has officially opened the King Abdullah International Center for Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue (KAICIID) to "foster dialogue" between the world's major religions in order to "prevent conflict," critics say that KAICIID's work will parallel long-standing efforts by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 57 Muslim countries, to pressure Western countries into making it an international crime to criticize Islam or Mohammed -- all in the name of "religious tolerance."
This was effectively confirmed by the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who spoke at the inauguration ceremony of KAICIID in downtown Vienna on November 26. Ihsanoglu declared: "Islamophobia leads to hate crimes and as such, it generates fear, feelings of stigmatization, marginalization, alienation and rejection. The West must define hate crimes broadly and address the information deficit as well as enact adequate legislation and implement this legislation effectively. In conjunction with national legislation, they should also implement international commitments and agreed norms."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.