Should you be allowed to say that the founder of one of the world’s largest religions was a paedophile? According to the European Court of Human Rights the answer is ‘no’. In a decision issued this week the Court in Strasbourg ruled that this statement is defamatory towards the prophet of Islam, ‘goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate’ and ‘could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.’ Details of the long-running case can be read here.
I will come to the civilisational problems with this in a moment. But first allow me to point out what a difficult position this puts my book collection in. For beside me as I write I have a huge four-volume collection of the hadith (sayings) of Mohammed picked up on my travels in North Africa some years ago. They are the Bukhari hadith – that is the collection of hadith that scholars of Islam recognise to be the most authentic and reputable collection of Mohammed’s sayings. Whenever I open them I find out many interesting things about the founder of Islam.
For example, in ‘The Book of Ablution’ I can read what Mohammed thought about urination and the stances one might adopt during that act. I can also find advice about what to do with faeces and traces of blood coming from those same regions of the body. Crucially I can also learn what the prophet of Islam thought you should do with traces of ejaculate. I read, for instance about what those close to the prophet used to do with traces of semen found on his clothes. Sulaiman Ibn Yasar recounts what Mohammed’s last wife, Aisha, told him regarding this delicate subject:
“‘I used to wash the traces of semen from the clothes of The Prophet “Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him” and he used to go for prayers while water spots were still visible on it.’ 
It may still be legal where I am sitting in Europe to quote this passage. But the next volumes could now get me into real trouble.
For example, here is a portion of the hadith known as ‘The Merits of The Ansar’:
“‘Hesham narrated from his father: Khadija died three years before The Prophet “Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him” emigrated to Medina. He stayed there for two years or so and then he married A’isha when she was a girl of six years. He consumed that marriage when she was nine years old.’ 
Tricky. Let me jump another volume forward in my collection of Hadith. This is from ‘The Book of Marriage’:
“‘Urwa narrated: The Messenger of Allah “Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him” married A’isha when she was six years old, and consummated his marriage with her when she was nine. She remained with him nine years (till he died).’ 
Which I think we can all agree is very awkward. All religious traditions have oddities. Some Christians and Jews recently expressed aggravation when Joe Rogan and I laughed at a portion of a text from their religious tradition regarding blasphemy, bears and baldies. But what can you do? Pretend that the legend of Elisha and the two bears isn’t in the Bible? Isn’t odd or funny? Burn all copies of the text?
Unwittingly, perhaps, the ECHR has brought us to something of an impasse in this ruling. For the hadith are – next to the Qur’an – the most important foundational texts of Islam. And they state, repeatedly and without caveat, that the founder of Islam had sex with a girl of nine, who he had married when she was six. Mohammed was 53 at this time.
Today we would call this paedophilia, and would have no difficulty in identifying it as such. Of course most of us would also remember that in the past different norms existed and we should try to understand their context. But deciding that nothing critical might be said of such a person or set of actions is a problem isn’t it? And an exceedingly bad precedent to set.
We now know that in the 1970s the light entertainment section of the BBC did not frown on child abuse as it does now. Different customs appear to have existed in that different time. But we are still free to criticise that behaviour. Even though in the case of British TV presenter Jimmy Savile, there are many people still alive who knew him and would still have fond memories of him.
How odd it would be if the ECHR now decided that defaming the late Jimmy Savile should be punishable by law, and that neither truth nor evidence were any defence. That is what they have decided in the Mohammed case: that truth is not a justification and so something else comes into play.
Of course this is strange. If we are allowed to say that the recently-deceased Jimmy Savile had inappropriate relations with underage girls, then why is it illegal to say the same thing about the far longer-dead Mohammed? The answer is in that slimy little weasel-out of the ECHR: ‘religious peace’. To state what is in the texts of the Islamic religion risks – according to the ECHR – the peace which would otherwise exist between peoples.
Since Britain, like the rest of Europe, looks set to remain under the jurisdiction of the ECHR whatever happens with Brexit, here are now the options that are in front of us.
Firstly we could all agree that the texts sitting beside me as I write (which are available after a few button clicks to most of the world) do not exist. Or that they do exist but that the verses quoted above do not.
A second option is that we agree with Strasbourg that although some things may be true there is no point in saying them (that there should indeed be a punishment for saying them). But again, what a precedent. It means that if a Jimmy Savile society were to be created in the future (a society which venerated the late disc jockey’s taste in clothes and his widely acknowledged joie de vivre) it too could demand that no mention was ever made about the kiddy fiddling. For if such established facts were mentioned who could say that the peace would not risk being upset by the Savilians? And if they were upset might not the general peace be at risk?
The civilisational problem here is that the Strasbourg ruling creates a two-tier critical environment in Europe. It creates an environment in which anybody can make claims about anybody who is dead, apart from when the subject is Mohammed. Over time that is the sort of thing that might give a chap an advantage. And presumably if it is not possible to refer to his domestic arrangements with safety then there is no reason why in time people should continue to be able to say anything negative about other aspects of his career. Leaving Islam to be the only set of ideas which cannot be mentioned – never mind criticised – in what is meant to be a free society.
So a fair amount is at stake here. Most importantly the whole system of critical inquiry which has made Europe what it is today. Something that revolves on one simple question. Are we allowed to say what we read in books? Or are we to lie in order to remain on the right side of the new blasphemy laws of our day?
For my own part I don’t care a jot for the ruling of the ECHR and will continue to say what I like when I like. I trust that across Europe many other people will respectfully reserve the right to do the same.