As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

Here’s an explosive combination: The democratic demand for freedom of speech and the equally emotionally laden demand that sincerely held religious beliefs not be subjected to indiscriminate insults and scorn.

Religiously speaking, we’re talking about blasphemy, an issue contemporary Westerners are apt to believe is more of a concern in Muslim communities and highly autocratic nations such as Russia — and which they would be correct to conclude.

Journalistically and artistically speaking, we’re talking about the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Both were victims of blasphemy charges by Muslim. The former ended in horrific violence.

Now, Foreign Policy magazine — on the occasion of the Hebdo attacks fourth anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of the blasphemy fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini — has published an intriguing analysis piece on this issue. It ran under this headline:

30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward.

Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.

Here’s a hefty chunk of the Foreign Policy essay.

But despite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after Charlie Hebdo, 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 Mohammed 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 religious insult and blasphemy are generally different from hate speech laws—which are problematic in themselves—that purportedly protect people rather than abstract religious ideas and dogmas.

Moreover, 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. Toledo had written a particularly salty Facebook post: “I shit on God and have enough shit left over to shit on the dogma of the holiness and virginity of the Virgin Mary.” Toledo’s Facebook rant was provoked by the criminal investigation of three Spanish women’s rights activists who paraded a giant effigy of a vagina through the streets of Seville, imitating popular Catholic processions.

Soon the court will have to consider the case of the Polish pop star Doda, convicted of “religious insult” after giving an interview in which she was less than respectful of Christianity: “[I]t is hard to believe in something that was written by someone [the authors of the Bible] wasted from drinking wine and smoking some weed.” In Russia—also subject to the jurisdiction of the court—a 2013 blasphemy law has been used to target social media users as well as political protests, and those convicted may end up on a government list of “extremists and terrorists.”

How one feels about this is — I’m taking a not-so-wild guess here — wholly dependent upon whether it’s your ox or someone else’s that being gored.

Frankly, I’m personally inclined more toward the free speech side when it comes toward blasphemy. Though I admit I sometimes feel uncomfortable when it's my religious beliefs that are maligned.

Still, that’s a trade off I’m willing to make. Guess I’m just a big fan of democratic principles, as difficult as they may be to swallow at times.

The Foreign Policy essay — written by two free-speech activists —goes on to note that European nations acted much differently during the years when Muslim nations tried to get the United Nations to impose a broad ban on blasphemy in general. (Though let’s not be naive; it was Islam they were most interested in insulting.)

These cases stand in stark contrast to how European democracies have approached the question of blasphemy and free speech at the United Nations.

For more than a decade, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) attempted to introduce a global blasphemy ban by passing annual resolutions against “defamation of religions.” But in 2012, the OIC’s then-secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, had to admit defeat under pressure from democracies, human rights organizations, and activists, with the United States and European democracies taking the lead. “We could not convince them,” Ihsanoglu said.

“The European countries don’t vote with us, the United States doesn’t vote with us.” This crucial victory for free speech was followed by statements from U.N., European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Council of Europe bodies and experts, all stressing the incompatibility of blasphemy bans with free speech under international human rights law.

By breaking with this consensus and failing to crystalize the protection of blasphemy and religious insult into legally binding human rights norms, the 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 where blasphemy is a matter of life and death.

I can only imagine that in this freewheeling, social media-era the argument of free speech versus religious insults, be they gratuitous or equally sincerely held, will only become more and more complicated. Not to mention that Western society as a whole has become increasingly sensitive toward the limits of permissible public speech and other forms of communication.

Other forms of communication?

Yeah. I’m referring to what journalists do — which is expressing their own controversial views or reporting the controversial views of others.

In short, this is an issue journalists — whether they’re writing opinion/analysis pieces or constructing hard news stories — should stay abreast of. You don't want to find yourself on the wrong side of this shifting line.

At least not because of ignorance.

This background memo (.pdf here) from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom can help you keep score.

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