Europe Should Be Eliminating Blasphemy Laws, Not Expanding Them

January 14, 2019 | Jacob Mchangama and Sarah Mclaughlin
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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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