Almighty test: Why can't we ridicule religion?
European courts risk corroding free speech to create special status for Islam
On the same day last week, Ireland voted to scrap its blasphemy law and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld a verdict against a woman accused of slandering the Prophet Muhammad. And that is the new Europe in a nutshell: severing its link to Christianity at the same time it struggles to accommodate the more assertive faith of Islam.
We're facing an almighty test of free speech vs religious tolerance.
The ECHR story started in 2009, when, at a seminar, an Austrian woman compared one of Muhammad's marriages to paedophilia. She claimed that his bride, Aisha, was six years old at her wedding and nine when the union was consummated. The woman was found guilty and fined in 2011 in her home country under a law against disparaging religious doctrines. She took her case to Strasbourg, arguing that she was contributing to public debate.
The ECHR disagreed. It said her language had not been objective or factual and was "apt to arouse (justified) indignation".
The court concluded that the original ruling had adequately weighed the woman's right to speak against both the right of others to have their "religious feelings protected" and the preservation of "religious peace" in Austrian society.
The ECHR has a mixed record when it comes to issues arising from Islamic beliefs: it has upheld nationwide bans of burkas and, in 2017, ruled that Swiss authorities have the right to compel Muslim girls to attend swimming lessons. This latest judgment is a classic example of unelected judges going well beyond their job description to shape social policy.
Yes, the ECHR isn't the EU, but this is the sort of thing that motivated Euroscepticism in the UK and paved the way to Brexit. Readers might find the implications of the court's remarks on sex and childhood uncomfortable. The historical record on Muhammad's marriage is disputed: it's a fiendishly complicated debate and the Austrian woman's seminar did not provide cultural context or give sufficient space to opposing arguments.
But were the Austrian court and the ECHR right to criticise her, as they did, for confusing paedophilia and child marriage?
The judges implied a distinction between the two that most of us utterly reject. They insisted that by crudely emphasising paedophilia the woman was going out of her way to defame the Prophet and thus went beyond fair and balanced debate.
That's true, but it begs another, more fundamental question. Who cares?
Don't we have a right to insult other people's beliefs, even if we are being inaccurate in the process? I'm a Catholic: I've experienced prejudice and it makes me sympathetic to slandered Muslims.
Countless times I've heard that my people worship statues or think the pope is literally a god - and we're all, of course, fierce supporters of the IRA. If the purpose of these idiotic assertions is to incite violence then there's a very good case for the state getting involved, but generally one has to take it on the chin and try to see it as part and parcel of the western way of life.
Our liberal democracy is rooted in 500 years of contest over religious belief: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Darwinism or Marxism. Even if you don't like where the (near-godless) west has ended up, its rebellion against religious authority has left a legacy of free thought that allows religious conservatives to criticise liberals as much as liberals ridicule us.
Everyone should be free to be right or wrong, to speak his own form of truth.
Indeed, the irony is that one of the things that has drawn many Muslim migrants to Europe is that they weren't allowed to practise their own faith fully where they were born. Here they can, and should, be able to do as they wish - on the understanding that they respect liberty and pluralism.
This ECHR judgment feels like a turning point: the courts faced a choice between the right to be wrong and the right not to be offended and came down on the latter, which it's hard not to interpret as a new form of blasphemy law.
One can entirely understand why many Muslims will be grateful. As the pope once said, attacking Muhammad is like attacking one's own mother, and that provokes an entirely human reaction. Christian conservatives have largely reacted to vilification and marginalisation by withdrawing from politics and society – they have surrendered their once-privileged position, as Ireland's weakly opposed legalisation of gay marriage and blasphemy prove.
Paradoxically, at the same time, Europe's courts risk creating a new status for Islam that could appear to rope it off from criticism, a status that is bound to fuel jealousy and resentment, and won't be good for anyone in the long run.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited