On October 25, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) essentially ruled that criticizing Mohammed, the founder of Islam, means inciting hatred and therefore such criticism is not protected free speech. With this verdict, Europe was basically told to submit to Islam.
The case involved Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, an Austrian who was convicted of “denigrating religious beliefs” after she had given lectures about the dangers of fundamentalist Islam. A left-leaning journalist had been planted in the audience and secretly recorded the lectures. Soeren Kern noted that “the offending speech was an offhand comment by Sabaditsch-Wolff that Mohammed was a pedophile because he married his wife Aisha when she was just six or seven years old. Sabaditsch-Wolff’s actual words were, ‘A 56-year-old and a six-year-old? What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?’” Muslim tradition holds that the marriage was consummated when she was only nine years old and thus would have been illegal according to current Austrian law. Her “comments were factually, if not politically, correct.” The journalist who recorded the lectures was instrumental in bringing the matter to court and the case eventually found its way to the ECHR.
Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff appealed to this court to overturn earlier decisions of Austrian courts convicting her of denigrating religious beliefs. She argued that her right to freedom of expression has been violated since what she had said had been value judgments based on facts and her critique of Islam was in the context of an objective and lively discussion which contributed to a public debate and had not been aimed at defaming Mohammed. The European Court did not agree, and the seven judges unanimously found her guilty of “denigrating religious beliefs.” The judges felt that it was necessary to balance the freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected in order to preserve religious peace.
In a perceptive World Magazine article, Mindy Belz observed that applying this decision to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris “would force authorities to blame the victims rather than the al-Qaida gunmen. The cartoonists and editors at the satirical newsweekly killed in the attack would have been guilty of causing the attack because they ‘hurt the feelings’ and created ‘justifiable indignation’ of the Islamic community of Paris.”
The recent ECHR decision was clearly a capitulation or submission to Islam and its Sharia law since earlier decisions of the ECHR showed little sensitivity for Christian feelings. Belz noted that “when a Lithuanian fashion designer posted ads depicting a shirtless Jesus in tattoos and tight jeans, ECHR said it ‘must be‘ possible to criticize religious ideas, ‘even if such criticism may be perceived by some as hurting their religious feeling.’” Also, “when the feminist protest band Pussy Riot trespassed and took over Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to record a profane song, ECHR said the band’s right to freedom of expression ‘extends to information or ideas which shock or disturb.’”
Belz noted how ironic [it was] that the European Court “appeared to adopt a standard similar to strict blasphemy laws in Islamic-led countries in the same week Pakistan’s Supreme Court dealt such laws a blow,” referring to the famous case of Asia Bibi, a Christian, whose blasphemy conviction was overturned by Pakistan’s supreme court and who at the time of writing is still waiting for a western country to offer her asylum.
The ECHR submission to Islam is a warning for Canada. The trend of catering to the wishes of Islam is evident in our nation as well. With the consequences of Parliament’s adoption of Motion 103, which purports to fight Islamophobia, still unclear, we need to be vigilant to maintain our freedom to criticize Islamic beliefs if necessary.
Sources used: Direct quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from Soeren Kern, “European Human Rights Court Backs Sharia Blasphemy Law” on the Gatestone Institute website; Mindy Belz, “Silenced Speech” World Magazine, November 24 2018, page 28. Also published in Clarion 11 January 2019.
Dr Cornelis Van Dam is emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, in Hamilton, Ontario.