Europe Should Be Eliminating Blasphemy Laws, Not Expanding Them

Jan. 14 2019

This month marks the fourth anniversary of the killing of the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo—after which one of the perpetrators went on to attack a kosher supermarket—and the 30th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the murder of Salman Rushdie. Instead of strengthening their commitment to freedom of speech in light of these Islamist attempts to punish blasphemy in the West with murder, some European countries, and EU courts, have been moving in the opposite direction. Jacob Mchangama and Sarah Mclaughlin write:

[D]espite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after the Charlie Hebdo [killings], blasphemy bans have become more firmly anchored in some parts of the continent in recent years. In a recent case, the European Court of Human Rights even reaffirmed that European human-rights law recognizes a right not to have one’s religious feelings hurt. The court based its decision on the deeply flawed assumption that religious peace and tolerance may require the policing rather than the protection of “gratuitously offensive” speech. Accordingly, it found that Austria had not violated freedom of expression by convicting a woman for having called the prophet Mohammad a “pedophile.”

Some have argued that the court’s decision was a necessary defense of an embattled Muslim minority vulnerable to bigotry and religious hatred. But . . . . laws against blasphemy and religious insult frequently protect the majority against minorities and dissenters. In Spain, the actor and activist Willy Toledo was arrested and now faces prosecution for “offending religious feelings” after being reported to the police by an association of Catholic lawyers. . . .

By breaking with [the previous European] consensus and failing to crystallize the protection of blasphemy and religious insult into legally binding human-rights norms, the EU court has failed to offer an expansive protection of free speech for Europeans affected by such laws. But the court’s reasoning and the continuous enforcement of blasphemy bans in European democracies also help lend legitimacy to laws punishing blasphemy and religious offense in states, [such as Pakistan], where blasphemy is a matter of life and death. . . .

The intolerant mob violence [that took place in Pakistan following the acquittal of Asia Bibi on blasphemy charges] makes a mockery of the [EU] court’s argument that it may be necessary for democracies to punish religious offenses. The oppressive history and practice of blasphemy laws cannot be washed away by insisting that the protection of religious feelings pursues the interest of tolerance and religious peace. Having your innermost convictions questioned, criticized, or mocked does not threaten those crucial values—indeed, a tolerant society is one that allows such questioning. The main threat to social peace comes not from those who challenge religious dogma but from those willing to kill for it, whether on the streets of Islamabad or in Paris.

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More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Charlie Hebdo, European Union, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Islamism, Pakistan

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East