What do Europe and Pakistan have in common? Recent events demonstrate that both set limits on a person’s freedom of speech and expression by enforcing blasphemy laws, laws that penalize the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things.
In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a 53-year-old Christian woman, has been on death row since 2010. Her alleged crime? Back in 2009 in Punjab, two Muslim women accused Bibi, a mother of five children, of polluting a cup by drinking from it on a hot summer day. In the heat of argument, Bibi allegedly said to the Muslim women: “Jesus had died on the cross for the sins of mankind” and asked, “What did your Prophet Muhammad ever do to save mankind?”
In Pakistan, which enforces the most severe form of blasphemy law and where religious minorities are frequent targets, making a blasphemous comment is itself considered a punishable blasphemous act. Thus, Bibi was quickly arrested on the charge of blasphemy and was sentenced to death in 2010.
She appealed to Pakistan’s Supreme Court. The court reviewed her appeal in early October of this year, but decided to postpone making any verdict indefinitely amid protests led by a hard-line Islamic party, which threatens “terrible consequences” if Bibi is allowed to live and flee to another country. This isn’t an empty threat, because in Punjab, former Christian Gov. Salmaan Taseer, who called Pakistan’s blasphemy statute a “black law” prone to abuse, was murdered by his own body guard in 2011.
If in the end Pakistan’s Supreme Court spares Bibi’s life and lets her flee, she may not want to settle in Europe, because last Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld an Austrian woman’s conviction by an Austrian court for defaming Muhammad.
According to the court ruling, the woman in this case, Mrs. S., held several seminars, entitled “Basic Information on Islam” between 2008 to 2009. In these seminars, she made several statements regarding Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha (Islamic traditions hold that Aisha was six at the time of their marriage and nine at its consummation). An undercover journalist reported her comments to Austrian authorities.
The Vienna Regional Criminal Court found her “guilty of publicly disparaging an object of veneration of a domestic church or religious society, namely Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, in a manner capable of arousing justified indignation.” Thus, she was convicted in 2011 of “disparaging religious doctrines pursuant to Article 188 of the Criminal Code concerning three statements.” She was ordered to “pay the costs of the proceedings and a day‑fine of 4 euros (EUR) for a period of 120 days (amounting to EUR 480 in total), which would result in sixty days’ imprisonment in the event of default.”
Mrs. S appealed the verdict by arguing her comments were protected by freedom of expression and her goal was not to defame Muhammad, but to contribute to a public debate. Her appeal was first denied by the Regional Criminal Court and later by the Austrian Supreme Court in 2014. Both courts upheld the lower court’s verdict by concluding that “the interference with the applicant’s freedom of expression in the form of a criminal conviction had been justified as it had been based in law and had been necessary in a democratic society, namely in order to protect religious peace in Austria.”
Last Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Mrs. S’s conviction didn’t violate Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, covering freedom of expression, even though the ECHR acknowledges that “freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress and for each individual’s self-fulfillment. It is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb. ”
In other words, freedom of expression includes the right to offend. However, after giving the traditional definition of freedom of expression, the ECHR insists “the exercise of the freedom of expression carries with it duties and responsibilities.” Mrs. S’s right to freedom of expression “must be balanced with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.”
So just like Pakistan, the ECHR ruled that a blasphemous comment is itself a punishable blasphemous act because it may disturb “religious peace.” Similarly, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan justifies his support of the death penalty for blasphemy, arguing it helps maintain peace in society.
Unlike Pakistan, Europe pretends to be an enlightened and progressive place, even though it has long retreated from defending freedom of expression and protecting religious freedom. In 2006, after Danish and Norwegian media published controversial cartoons mocking Muhammad, Javier Solana, then the EU’s coordinator of foreign policy, traveled to Saudi Arabia and promised the EU would “do our utmost for this not to happen again.”
That’s why Graeme Wood, a staff writer for The Atlantic, wrote recently that we shouldn’t believe “the ECHR’s decision represents a sudden change in European norms and law about free speech.” The truth is, “European laws (and, indeed, laws in most of the world) have long treated freedom of speech as a dispensable, very much alienable right,” he wrote.
If Europe believes enforcing blasphemy laws in order to suppress offensive speech is necessary for maintaining “religious peace,” it’s dead wrong. Blasphemy laws protect no one and certainly don’t maintain religious peace. They represent a disguised bigotry — the progressives in the EU don’t trust that Muslims are peace-loving and are capable of civil discourse without resorting to violence.
The Europeans like to take pride in saying they enjoy a multicultural society. Yet it seems the more diverse its population gets, the less Europe knows how to integrate them. Rather than helping its immigrants assimilate into the liberal, democratic norm, Europe self-censors its own liberal values. But its appeasement hasn’t bought it peace and its retreat has only invited more repression. Europe has seen some of the deadliest attacks in recent years against novelists, journalists, and cartoonists.
According to a report by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 71 countries, including several nations in Europe, still punish blasphemy. Thankfully, there are some bright spots in Europe. The day after the ECHR’s ruling, Ireland voted to remove a blasphemy reference from its constitution, making it possible to repeal a law that punishes blasphemy according to religious sensibilities.
Don’t get me wrong. We should unequivocally condemn any act that causes physical harm to others because of their beliefs. We should count on our criminal laws to punish those who commit violence. But blasphemy laws are relics from the dark ages that have no place in today’s liberal democracies. One of the reasons that liberal democracies are able to enjoy peace and prosperity much more than any form of political systems is the diverse and free exchange of ideas.
As the ECHR admits, “Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society.” Without such a foundation, a liberal democratic society will cease to exist.