Freedom of Expression

ECHR ruling on defaming the Prophet Muhammed

Although it’s difficult to evaluate legal judgments based on a summary in a newspaper, on the face of it, this particular judgment seems concerning.

Defaming the Prophet Muhammed “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace” and thus exceeds the permissible limits of freedom of expression, ruled the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Thursday, upholding a lower court decision.

The decision by a seven-judge panel came after an Austrian national identified as Mrs. S. held two seminars in 2009, entitled “Basic Information on Islam,” in which she defamed the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage.

According to a statement released by the court on Thursday, the Vienna Regional Criminal Court found that these statements implied that Muhammad had pedophilic tendencies, and in February 2011 convicted Mrs. S. for disparaging religious doctrines.

It does seem from other reports that Mrs S. discussed the topic in quite a crude and tendentious way:

According to scripture the marriage was consumated [sic] when Aisha was just nine years old, leading Mrs S. to say to her class Mohammad ‘liked to do it with children’.

She also reportedly said ‘… A 56-year-old and a six-year-old? … What do we call it, if it is not paedophilia?’

I certainly wouldn’t argue with a Muslim who found this Islamophobic.  However it ought to be possible to identify something as bigoted, condemn it, perhaps decide (for example) that such behaviour is incompatible with being a member of a particular political party – and yet still not make it a criminal offence.  If she had been shouting such comments outside a mosque – that would be different.  It’s particularly worrying – although perhaps something has been lost in translation – that it says she was convicted for ‘disparaging religious doctrine’, as though theological ideas deserved legal protection.
Here’s another key passage from the report:
The court held “that by considering the impugned statements as going beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate and classifying them as an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam, which could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace, the domestic courts put forward relevant and sufficient reasons.”
The reference to ‘the permissible limits of an objective debate’ suggests that all discourse must be fair and logical.  That might be an ideal but people should also be free, within pretty wide parameters, to be passionate and irrational.  All kinds of discourse might be ruled out of order if worries about stirring up prejudice are to be given so much weight – trenchant criticism of Israel, for example.  The reference to ‘putting at risk religious peace’ is almost sinister, and it could easily be argued that the ruling itself is equally likely to ‘put at risk religious peace’ by whipping up anti-Muslim feeling and giving ammunition to the far right.
The offensive words were uttered during the course of two seminars organised by Mrs S. It would be useful to know more about the context of these.  Were they private meetings, or held under the auspices of a public body such as a college?  I assumed the former because otherwise one would expect the details to be reported.  If this is the case then the seminars might be paralleled with some of the talks and sermons given by extremist Muslim figures.  I’m not defending the way Mrs S. tackled the issue, but it seems extraordinary, in the light of this judgment, that someone like Haitham al-Haddad can preach with impunity.

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