In a monumental irony, the ECHR’s agreement with an Austrian court that offensive comments about the Prophet Mohammed were 'beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate' has handed a big victory to both Islamists and Islamophobes – while infantilising believing Muslims everywhere.
The case concerns an unnamed Austrian woman who held a number of seminars during which she portrayed the Prophet as a paedophile. After she was convicted by an Austrian court of 'disparaging religion' (and fined nearly €500), she appealed to the ECHR claiming the punishment breached her right to free expression. The court disagreed.
As a practising Muslim, I find this notion – that the Prophet was a paedophile – to be as abhorrent and nasty as they come; not to mention completely false. Yet I could not disagree more with the ECHR’s ruling.
For a start, it implies there is somehow a balance to be struck between people’s freedom of expression and the right of Muslims not to be offended. I just don’t understand this: how can the views of another individual possibly affect my faith or beliefs? Her ignorance – or anyone else’s for that matter – does not equate to my persecution.
The ECHR also claims that 'the applicant had suggested that Muhammad was not a worthy subject of worship.' Well, that’s absolutely fine by me. After all, Muslims don’t worship the Prophet: the Quran is clear that God is the sole entity of worship.
The decision recalls the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, who described the West’s failure to defend fundamental freedoms in the face of religious extremists as a self-imposed 'cultural fatwa'. It also shows how effective Islamists and their supporters have been in weaponising the concept of Islamophobia.
Muslims are perfectly capable of addressing the applicant’s claims directly. If I were to be confronted with these views, I would simply explain that biographies of Aisha (the Prophet’s final wife) were not known until 150 years after her death; that scholars believe Aisha may have been as old as 16 at the time of marriage; that puberty was typically regarded as the onset of adulthood in seventh-century Arabia (while this may be incompatible with our modern worldview it is worth remembering that the Holy Virgin Mary would have likely been in her early teens when giving birth to Jesus); and that the Quran itself invalidates marriage if not between two consenting adults (thus making the idea that the Prophet married a child literally impossible).
The ECHR would presumably be surprised to learn that far worse criticism is levelled at Aisha by some Shia Muslims, for whom she remains a polarising figure.
This ruling could have wide-ranging – and unforeseen – implications, delivering a victory for those who do wish to criminalise criticism of Islam. Compare this decision (from a supposedly progressive and secular European court) with the ruling this week in Pakistan that Asia Bibi, the Christian woman unfairly accused of blasphemy, should be freed – the contrast is truly sobering.
Ultimately, the ECHR’s logic rests on a depressing assumption that Europe’s Muslims are somehow incapable of intellectual debate and too fragile to hear criticisms of their religion. Yet this scrutiny is crucial for exposing Islamism – the totalitarian imposter of Islam – and countering its evils.
Thanks to this ruling, the ability of Muslims like me – who oppose Islamism with all our being – to participate in public debate has been weakened. It’s bad news for Europe – and probably beyond.