The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) states in Article 10:
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. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, 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, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
On October 25, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights, a panel of seven international judges, ruled in the appeal of an Austrian woman who had been convicted of denigrating religious beliefs in that country. The appellant, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff (SW), a Viennese housewife, had stated in November 2009 that the marriage of Mohammed to a six-year old, Aisha, which marriage was consummated when Aisha was aged nine, constituted paedophilia. Her words (quoting from the Court’s press release) were, “[Mohammed] liked to do it with children,” and “a 56-year old and a six-year old?… What do we call that, if it is not paedophilia?”
Mrs. SW made these statements during a seminar that she was teaching on Islam. Some of her lectures were secretly recorded and the transcripts were handed over to the public prosecutor, with the result that she was tried and convicted in February 2011 for the crime of “denigrating religious belief,” namely, Islam. The Austrian housewife was ordered to pay a fine of 480 Euro or face up to six months in prison, for paragraph 188 of the Austrian criminal code prohibits the public denigration of religion that is “designed to stir up justifiable indignation.” Her fine was only 480 Euro because it was calculated according to the “day rate” (the law allows up to 360 “day rates”), which in Mrs. SW’s case was only four Euro per day because she is a housewife with limited income. Had she been a person of greater financial means, the fine would have been considerably larger. For example, Susanne Winter, an Austrian politician, was fined 24,000 Euro for a similar offence in Austria in January 2009.
In December 2011, the Austrian housewife appealed her conviction, but her appeal was rejected in Austrian Appeals Court; hence, her further appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which unanimously rejected her appeal in October. Mrs. SW argued that her right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR had been violated. The Court disagreed, releasing a press statement summarizing its findings: “Conviction for Calling Muhammad a Paedophile is Not in Breach of Article 10.” ECHR, Article 10, is the closest that Europeans have to the (American) First Amendment. Already the reader can see that the right is not absolute, for Europeans’ rights under Article 10 “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law, etc.”
The question before the Court was this: does a European citizen have the right to insult Mohammed, the so-called prophet of Islam, or does a European state have a right to forbid and punish such speech (in this case, Austria; but this ruling has implications for all of the EU member-states, and probably also for the UK even after Brexit)? The ruling of the European Court of Human Rights effectively criminalizes insulting speech against Islam in Europe. It forbids speech (in the case of the Austrian law) that is designed to stir up “justifiable indignation,” but it simply depends on which groups (or group) in Europe and elsewhere are stirred up when their religion is denigrated! The more likely a group is to be offended (and to show their offense in a violent and aggressive manner), the more likely speech against that group’s beliefs will be prohibited! Christians do not riot in the streets when Jesus is blasphemed (nor should they), so it is unlikely that such a law would be used to prohibit blasphemy against the Son of God.
Let me be clear—I do not think that the public labelling of Mohammed as a pedophile is wise or helpful. I cannot think of a worse thing to say when attempting to witness to a Muslim with a view to winning him to Christ. It would be much better to concentrate on the glories of Christ than to concentrate on the moral failings of Mohammed. It would be much better to introduce the Bible to the Muslim than to mock the Qur’an. Present to the Muslim the holy character and the matchless speech of Jesus from the gospels so that, if God is pleased, God might draw the Muslim away from Mohammed and to the One who is altogether lovely. The issue is rather this: should it be illegal to say it; should the law forbid it; should a European citizen’s free speech be curtailed with respect to it; and should a person be subject to fines and imprisonment for stating it?
I highlight some of the statements from the Court’s ruling. First, religious belief cannot expect to be “exempt from criticism,” for religious persons “must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs.” Nevertheless, second, the Court viewed Mrs. SW’s statements as “capable of arousing justified indignation,” for they were supposedly not made “in an objective manner,” and they “aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not worthy of worship.” Incidentally, in Islam Mohammed is not worshipped, for to do so would be to commit the unforgivable sin of shirk, which is the sin of worshipping a creature instead of or in addition to Allah. In addition, Mrs. SW allegedly “failed to neutrally inform her audience of the historical background” (of Mohammed’s marriage to a child). Third, the Court “carefully balanced the applicant’s right to freedom of expression with the rights of others to have their religious feelings protected, and to have religious peace preserved in Austrian society.” Fourth, the court considered that “the impugned statements [went] beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate, and [classified] them as an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace.”
Therefore, if someone—in this case a Muslim—is offended, or his “religious feelings” are violated, the person making the statements can expect no protection under ECHR, Article 10. In Islam, it is impermissible to speak disparagingly about Mohammed, a crime punishable by death in several Islamic nations.
To illustrate that fact with just one recent example, albeit one with a happy outcome, I report on the case of Aasiya Noreen (or Asia Bibi), a young Pakistani woman sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy against Mohammed. This young lady, a Roman Catholic, offended Muslim farm workers when she sipped some water from a cup that she had fetched for them, her drinking from the cup supposedly rendering the water “unclean.” An argument ensued in which Bibi was accused of insulting Mohammed, for which she served eight years in a Pakistani prison awaiting her execution by hanging. Several prominent Pakistani politicians were assassinated for advocating for Bibi and for speaking out against the blasphemy law. After a lengthy appeal, Bibi was acquitted of the charge of blasphemy on October 31, 2018. The ruling caused immediate controversy: her lawyer, Saiful Malook, and the Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, who made the ruling in Bibi’s favor, have received death threats from angry mobs incensed that Bibi will now escape the noose and Mohammed will not be “avenged.” Malook has fled the country, but at the time of the writing of this report, Bibi’s departure from Pakistan is still being blocked by angry extremists who are placing pressure on the Pakistan government.
Where does that leave the “Mohammed was a paedophile” charge? That Mohammed took a child bride is the account of the Islamic scriptures, not a Western slur; however, Islamic societies interpret the actions of their prophet very differently from how we would:
The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj…. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s Blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age.
Khadija died three years before the Prophet departed to Medina. He stayed there for two years or so and then he married ‘Aisha when she was a girl of six years of age, and he consumed [consummated] that marriage when she was nine years old.1
The interpretation of this, however, is the issue. Writing in National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy explains:
The problem is not that, in the seventh century, Mohammed married a young girl. It is that, while the West evolves because it venerates reason, much of Islamic culture regards Mohammed as the perfect role model, and this conception of the good is immutable. To fundamentalists, enacting laws against child marriage would be tantamount to saying Mohammed was in the wrong—unacceptable.
As a result, child marriage, like the abuse of women and girls in many other contexts, remains a major problem in Islamic countries. In Saudi Arabia, for example, efforts to establish the marriage age at 15 (and, some hope, to raise it to 18) have been flattened by sharia authorities. [They] point to the example of Aisha, as well as scripture that marks the onset of puberty as the point of marriageability, and decree that no minimum age is appropriate. Even when governments enact a marriage age, fundamentalist communities flout it.2
There are many in Europe who advocate for the introduction of Sharia law, a law that would in its most extreme form punish blasphemers of Mohammed with death. Sharia law is fairly widespread in Muslim communities in Europe, although for now it deals with more benign issues such as food laws, cleansing rituals, and banking regulations (usury is forbidden in Islam).
Nevertheless, in Europe it is permissible for governments, for the sake of public peace, to prohibit such disparaging speech against Islam and even to punish it, not with death, but with fines and imprisonment. As one religious blogger wrote,
There is something inescapably suicidal about a purported Court of the Enlightenment determining that statements about a religion which are “capable of arousing justified indignation” constitute a “malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance” and so must be censored. Or more specifically, those who defame Mohammed from a point of historical ignorance or religious prejudice may now be fined or imprisoned. If Islam forbids any criticism of its precepts, permitting only Islamic scholars to pronounce upon the reliability of its history and the validity of its morality, and if the ECHR now affirms this, in what sense is this not a violation of the freedom of expression of both non-Muslims and all those enlightened Muslims who wish to carry out a bit of quaranic or hadithic form criticism and develop a reason-based prophetology? Presumably, attacking or defaming Jesus is permissible because it is unlikely to arouse ‘justified indignation’ in Christians. Or at least it is not likely ‘to disturb the religious peace of the country.3
1 Sahih-Bukhari, volume 5, book 58, Numbers 234-236, https://www.sahih-bukhari.com/Pages/Bukhari_5_58.php
2 Andrew C. McCarthy, “In Europe, Free Speech Bows to Sharia,” National Review, October 27, 2018.
3 “Don’t Defame Mohammed: ECHR Affirms European Sharia Blasphemy Law,” Archbishop Cranmer Blog, October 26, 2018.