Lettre du European Centre for Law and Justice du 11 mars 2019 : https://mailchi.mp/eclj/blasphemy-case-islamic-authorities-congratulate-the-european-court-of-human-rights?e=31d53f1055
|BLASPHEMY CASE: ISLAMIC AUTHORITIES CONGRATULATE THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS|
|Al-Azhar University and Pakistan welcome the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights regarding blasphemy against Muhammad; it allows them to justify their own repression of freedom of expression in religious matters.|
by PhD Grégor Puppinck
If one needed any more arguments to convince the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) of the necessity to retry the Austrian case of blasphemy against Muhammad, the highest Islamic authorities may have just provided it. They enthusiastically welcomed the E. S. v. Austria decision of last October 25 in which the Strasbourg Court validated the conviction of an Austrian lecturer for “defaming” Muhammad by comparing his union with 9-year-old Aisha to “paedophilia”. This lecturer, speaking in front of thirty people, wanted to denounce the practice of marriage of prepubescent girls in the Muslim culture, following the example of Muhammad. According to the European Court, these statements sought less to inform objectively than to demonstrate, in a “malicious” way that Muhammad is not a “worthy subject of worship” and thus constituted a “malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance, which was one of the bases of a democratic society”. The Court considered them to be “in a manner capable of arousing justified indignation” of the Muslims and “likely to disturb the religious peace”, and concluded that it was therefore legitimate to condemn their author.
On March 19, the Court must decide whether it agrees to refer the case for an “appeal” in the Grand Chamber for a new judgment. Rare enough, this request for referral is supported by 59,000 signatories of a petition to defend the right to criticize Islam in Europe.
This E. S. v. Austria judgment, described by the European Court as a “key case”, was echoed worldwide. It is more political than juridical. It has been strongly criticized in Western countries, both among conservative and free-thinkers, shocked that the European Court could limit to this point the guarantee of freedom of expression in religious matters. It has also been criticised because it completely relativizes the paedophilia and violence imposed on a 9 year-old girl. Conversely, in the Arab press, this judgment was greeted with enthusiasm and presented as a “historical decision”, or as “a victory for the Islamic world after the crisis of the cartoons published several times by several European newspapers.”
Exceptionally, some of the highest Islamic authorities have commented on this judgment, to rejoice and take advantage of it; which should question us.
This is the case of the Observatory of Islamophobia of the prestigious Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the highest authority of Sunni Islam. It expressed its support to the Court’s decision and described it as “courageous”. It saw in it a general condemnation of “blasphemies against the Prophet” and the assertion of the principle that “freedom of expression does not permit the harming of the religious feelings of others”. According to this Observatory, this decision is important also in that it would contribute “to reduce the problems of Islamophobia” while “the number of Muslims in Europe could reach 14% in 2050”. Based on this decision, it urged “governments around the world and international human rights institutions to take measures to counter attempts to defame others on the grounds of freedom of opinion or freedom of expression.” It also called for “dissuasive legislation and sanctions against all those who attempt to attack religious forces”.
The E. S. v. Austria judgment was also praised by the main authorities in Pakistan, a country famous for being the most repressive in the world regarding blasphemy.
Thus, on November 13, 2018, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan“welcomed the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights not to authorize acts of profanity under the guise of freedom of expression”. Addressing the President of the European Parliament, he expressed “the hope that European countries will comply with the decision of the European Court and take measures to strengthen respect for religions and interreligious harmony”. He also expressed the “serious concerns of the Government and people of Pakistan regarding the blasphemous caricatures of the Holy Prophet, stressing the need to redouble efforts in European countries to avoid such provocative incidents; to raise awareness of the religious sensitivity of Muslims, especially the respect of the Prophet Muhammad”. His Minister for Human Rights echoed him, “urging the Western world to show respect for religions”. She also added that “freedom of expression does not protect blasphemy”.
Accordingly, the Secretary General of the largest world federation of Koranic schools (10,000 madrassas), Qari Hanif Jalandhari, saw in this decision “a very important step” and asked the United Nations to elaborate global legislation “condemning anyone who commits a blasphemy against divine books or sacred persons of all religions”. As for the Vice-chancellor of Bahauddin Zakariya University, Dr. Tahir Amin, he also stated that the verdict of the European Court is “undoubtedly a major and historical decision”.
Perhaps one should rejoice to see the highest judicial authority in Europe agreeing with the highest Islamic authorities on the respect to be shown to Muhammad? Perhaps this is a welcomed gesture of appeasement in the conflict of civilization between the liberal West and the Ummah? This perspective is attractive; and this is the direction followed by the European Court in this E.S. v. Austria case when it laid down the principle that States now have the obligation “of ensuring the peaceful co‑existence of all religions and those not belonging to a religious group by ensuring mutual tolerance”.
Is it grandeur, cowardice or naivety?
This ideal of peace is appealing, but its price is the freedom to speak the truth. It implies that any statement, even true, is condemnable as intolerance and incitement to violence as soon as threatening people declare themselves offended in their religious feeling. Of course, it is true that peace is the greatest good of society; and it is therefore right that, in order to preserve it, the authorities must sometimes limit individual freedoms. But society must be well threatened to sacrifice even the freedom to speak the truth; or then, not believe in it anymore.
“What does the truth matter towards peace?” relativists from all sides will say. If truth does not exist, then, indeed, freedom of expression is of little value, and a mandatory “tolerance” should be imposed upon all.
Some might see a certain grandeur in the reckless respect of the religion of “the others”; a respect perceived as all the more commendable as it is usually accompanied by contempt for one’s own religious tradition. This may explain the “double standard” of the European Court’s recent case law, which, like so many postmodern Europeans, is more sensitive to attacks against Islam than to those directed against Christianity. Last year, it validated the Austrian speaker’s condemnation while granting its protection to the perpetrators of true anti-Christian blasphemy committed in the Moscow Cathedral and the major Lithuanian press.
Others may see cowardice in sacrificing freedom of expression for fear of “putting at risk religious peace”.
Others yet may see naivety in rejoicing at the support of Al-Azhar and Pakistan, as these authorities find in the European Court’s decision a justification for their own repression of freedom of expression in religious matter.
Thus, in Pakistan, in addition to the emblematic Asia Bibi case, about 1,500 persons were accused of blasphemy between 1987 and 2016 according to the Centre for Social Justice, and more than 70 persons have been murdered since 1990 on such crime allegations. Just recently, a thirty-year-old man was sentenced to death for allegedly “insulting Prophet Muhammad” on Facebook. Prime Minister Imran Khan declared again, recently, before an audience of imams, his will to “support and defend article 295c” of the Penal Code which punishes by death or life imprisonment anyone who “defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad”. Western countries, the European Parliament and the United Nations Human Rights Committee have been calling for the repeal of this law for years.
With Egypt, Pakistan is leading the global campaign led by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for the global limitation of freedom of expression regarding religion. This campaign led to the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council of a series of resolutions condemning the “defamation of Islam”, then the “defamation of religions”. It was only after years of intense debate that governments attached to the modern conception of human rights were able to counter this initiative by adopting a resolution on 12 April 2011, which is based on the belief that freedom of expression is the best antidote to intolerance.
The recent decision of the European Court goes, surprisingly, against the efforts of Western countries to safeguard freedom of expression in religious matters. It is even interpreted by the Islamic authorities as finally giving them reason, and places them in the extravagant situation of giving lessons of religious tolerance to the European states.
This decision is also sad news for all those who, among Muslims, hope to find in Europe the protection to brave the Islamic ban on criticizing Islam and reinterpreting the Qur’an and hadith.
This decision stands out also clearly from the recent judgments of the Court. Previously, the Court had established the principle that freedom of expression protects words that “offend, shock or disturb” and that freedom of religion does not confer the right “to see religion protected from negative comment.” Moreover, it had recognized to believers the obligation to “tolerate and accept the rejection by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith.” On that basis, it had guaranteed the freedom of expression of anti-religious messages. Last year, it gave its protection to the famous “Pussy Riot”, the punk band condemned in Russia for organizing a “performance” in the choir of the Moscow Cathedral with cries including “shit, shit, shit L***”. It also held that Lithuania could not sanction the dissemination of blasphemous advertisements presenting Christ and the Virgin Mary as tattooed and lascivious junkies.
The European Court, in judging this case, was aware of these issues since we had warned it in our written observations.
Certainly, there is no reason to make blasphemy and vulgarity into human rights! There is no “right to blasphemy” but a right to freedom of expression with responsibilities and limitations. Only the dissemination of free offensive obscenities as well as the incitement to immediate violence should be restricted. But if obscenity and incitement to violence must be censored, such should not be the case of mere criticism.
The European tradition teaches that there is no lasting peace without truth and justice. Because Europe is the heir, since ancient times, of a civilization that identifies God with truth and love, and not with arbitrariness and force, we place those at the top of our values and do not conceive that truthfulness could offend God or society. Seeking the truth and knowing God are one. This is certainly the origin of our attachment to rational research and criticism. We want a society in which “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other”. Righteousness and peace, which characterize the ideal of every society, are the fruit of love and truth. True peace, therefore, is not reduced to the superficial absence of violent conflict, and it is vain to pretend to establish it on lies or relativism.
The Austrian lecturer told the truth. She is criticized above all for having done so in a “malicious” way, that is to say without love. What do we know about it, and is it justice’s role to judge one’s intentions? Moreover, to make this reproach is to forget that the denunciation of evil, to protect society, under its apparent roughness, is an act of love.
For all these reasons, it is to be hoped that the Court will agree to retry this case in order to guarantee the freedom to criticize any religion, to defend the rights of truth over error.