Europe’s blasphemy, old and new


Europe is a big continent , with lots going on in different parts of it, but I’ll be quite interested to see how these two trends might get reconciled:

Ireland’s blasphemy referendum is a small step towards creating a 21st century constitution, prime minister Leo Varadkar says.

The anticipated result, removing the term from the state’s official statement of values, marks the latest sign of Ireland’s decades-long social liberalisation from a deeply-Catholic and conservative society to an increasingly secular one.

Varadkar said the change was approved by around 70 per cent of the electorate during Friday’s vote…

Removing the reference to blasphemy was backed by a Catholic Church which has sustained severe reputational damage from decades of clerical sex abuse.

Nobody has been prosecuted for the offence in Ireland since 1855, in connection with an alleged case of Bible-burning.

Blasphemy was defined as publishing or uttering something “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

Anybody found guilty could face a 25,000 euro ($A40,283) fine. [emphasis added]

But at almost exactly the same time:

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled a woman convicted by an Austrian court of calling the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile did not have her freedom of speech rights infringed.

The woman, named only as Mrs. S, 47, from Vienna, was said to have held two seminars in which she discussed the marriage between the Prophet Mohammad and a six-year old girl, Aisha.

According to scripture the marriage was consumated 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?’

Mrs S. was later convicted in February 2011 by the Vienna Regional Criminal Court for disparaging religious doctrines and ordered her to pay a fine of 480 euros plus legal fees…

In a statement on Thursday the ECHR said: ‘The Court found in particular that the domestic courts comprehensively assessed the wider context of the applicant’s statements and carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.’

‘It held that by considering the impugned statements as going beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate, and by classifying them as an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace, the domestic courts put forward relevant and sufficient reasons.’ [emphasis added]

This seems on its face a pretty outrageous case of enshrining at the highest judicial level in Europe of a member state’s blasphemy laws. In the past, blasphemy laws had been justified by the need to prevent and punish an offence against God but also an offence against the community and their feelings, since the blasphemer’s words and actions outrage the public morality, disturb the peace and corrupt the weak. Now we’re back to square one, with Europe’s highest court coming out firmly in favour of a right not to be offended. This decision opens a whole new minefield and welcomes further litigation to clarify any number of points of law – what is an “objective debate”? what are its “permissible limits”? what makes an attack “abusive”? who decides – the proverbial reasonable man or a member of a particular religion?
That Mohammed consummated his marriage with a pre-pubescent girl has been recognised as true by most of the Muslim religious scholarship throughout the ages. It clearly wasn’t a crime in the 7th century Arabia, even if this was a pretty exceptional case even for its time, but today would land Mohammed in jail in most places around the world, certainly in developed democracies like Austria. Is it now a crime to point this out? Since when is truth abusive?
The concept of preserving “religious peace” (what about “political peace” or any other peace – why are religious feeling privileged above all other feelings by secular governments?) seems to entrench the “heckler’s veto” in public debate: he who can scream the loudest and appear most threatening to that religious peace gets to decide the perimeters of discussion. An abusive attack on the religious feelings of Austria’s Christians (the average age probably 60+) is not going to threaten religious peace because, well, Austria’s Christians are generally pretty peaceful and in any way too old to threaten religious peace even if they wanted to. What about denying the existence of a deity altogether – is atheism still allowed? – or the divinity of a particular party? After all, Islam denies that Jesus is the Son of God, and in turn Christianity denies that Mohammed is God’s messenger. There are even some who doubt the historical existence of Mohammed (others do of Jesus) – is it more offensive to speculate that a religion’s founder is a myth or that he slept with children?
In Europe Anno Domini 2018 – and increasingly 1440 Since Hegira – no one expects the Austrian Inquisition. But there you have it anyway.