Insulting Muhammad is a risky business these days. Not only in Muslim-majority nations with stiff blasphemy laws, but also in supposedly enlightened Europe. Yes, even on a continent that loves to trumpet its commitment to freedom of speech, mocking Muhammad can land you in hot water.
Consider the recent trials of two women who committed the speech crime of insulting the Prophet, one in Pakistan and the other in Austria.
In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian, has finally had her death sentence for blasphemy overturned.
Bibi was found guilty of blasphemy in 2010 after she got into a row with neighbours during which they insulted her Christian faith and she fired back with a swipe at Muhammad. (She has always denied doing this.)
Under Pakistan's cruel, archaic blasphemy laws—first introduced by the British Raj in 1860 and strengthened under the military rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s—it is a crime to insult religious beliefs, willfully desecrate the Koran, or insult the Prophet.
The price for destroying a Koran? Life in prison. For mocking Muhammad? Death.
Bibi was packed off to death row, where she languished for nine years, awaiting the gallows. "Hang Asia," read the placards of hardline Islamists who agitated many times for Bibi's execution to be hurried along.
But Wednesday, in a decision that rocked and enraged these Islamists, Bibi had her sentence overturned. She has been freed. She will now, of course, be spirited out of Pakistan to somewhere that's safe for those who don't love Muhammad.
Somewhere in Europe, perhaps? Good luck with that. This is also a place where officialdom will punish you if you insult the Prophet.
Bibi was taken to court and convicted merely for saying something about a holy figure to a small group of people. The case of a woman who did the same thing, only in Austria, reached its conclusion just last week.
In 2009, a woman known only as E.S. in the court proceedings, gave two seminars titled "Basic Information on Islam" at the hard-right Freedom Party Education Institute in Vienna. There were about 30 people in attendance.
During the seminars, she brought up the prickly issue of Muhammad's marriage to Aisha. It is widely accepted as historical fact that Muhammad got hitched to Aisha when he was 56 years old and she was 6 years old; and that he consummated the marriage when Aisha was only 9 years old.
This shows, said E.S. in her seminars, that he "liked to do it with children." She continued: "What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?"
Unfortunately for E.S., there was an undercover journalist among her small audience, and the journalist lodged a complaint with the cops. E.S. was arrested, put on trial, and in early 2011, she was found guilty at the Vienna Regional Criminal Court of threatening the religious peace in Austria.
Her words were a libel against Muhammad, the court said—she had wrongly accused him of having a "primary sexual interest" in children's bodies. And they were also capable of "hurting the feelings" of Muslims. She was fined 480 euros.
Now, a 480 euro fine is nothing compared with what Bibi suffered. But the principle in both cases was the exact same: Those who insult Muhammad must be punished.
The denouement to E.S.'s trial came last week. She appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), perhaps fancying it would defend her rights. Instead, it upheld the ruling of the Viennese court.
The ECHR said on Thursday of last week that E.S., like all Europeans, has the right to freedom of speech. But—and there is always a but—this freedom comes with responsibilities, including the responsibility to avoid, "as far as possible," being "gratuitously offensive" to "objects of veneration."
In short, don't insult gods or prophets. Just as the Raj straitjacketed its subjects on the subcontinent and forbade them from insulting religious beliefs, so Europe's spectacularly misnamed court of human rights instructs Europeans not to "gratuitously" insult religious beliefs.
How is it possible that a court tasked with upholding freedom of speech—under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act—could nod along to the curtailment of someone's freedom of speech?
The problem lies in Article 10 itself. It starts off well enough—"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression"—but it goes swiftly downhill from there.
This right, the Article decrees, can be curtailed by "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."
The European Court gives us freedom of speech in one breath and takes it away in the next. This is a good, jolting lesson in what happens when you caveat or hamper or err over freedom of speech—you destroy it.
You can't kind of have freedom of speech. You either have it or you don't. And in Europe, thanks to ECHR's green light to the curtailment of freedom of speech in the name of everything from public safety to the protection of morals (Stalinist, much?), we don't have freedom of speech. We have licensed speech: we are licensed to speak until we say something the state disapproves of, as E.S. discovered.
This isn't only an illiberal ruling; it's a dangerous one, too.
Europe has a radical Islam problem. As we have seen in recent massive terror attacks, and most notably in the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015, we have fairly significant numbers of people who are violently intolerant of aspects of the Western way of life, and of anyone who takes the piss out of Muhammad.
The European Court of Human Rights has just given its official nod to such intolerance. In agreeing with Austria that it is impermissible to insult Muhammad, the court has taken the side of those who think that Muhammad's insulters deserve punishment. There are significant differences between the ECHR, the Pakistani court that sentenced Asia, and the terrorists who massacred the journalists at Charlie Hebdo. But they are procedural differences, not philosophical ones.
Pluralism cannot survive without free expression, and free expression requires tolerance of criticism. The ECHR has failed not only to defend the liberty of E.S., but of all Europeans—Christian, Muslim, and atheists alike.