This essay, on a European Court of Human Rights ruling and on changing forms of blasphemy law, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the contrast between the EU’s response to Italy on immigration and the budget). It was published in the Observer, 28 October 2018, under the headline ‘None of us should enjoy the right to have our beliefs shielded from abuse‘.
Should it be illegal to call the prophet Muhammad a ‘paedophile’? That was the question in front of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last week.
In 2009, an Austrian woman, known as ES, held ‘seminars’ on Islam in which she likened Muhammad’s marriage to one of his wives, six-year-old Aisha, to paedophilia. She was convicted of ‘disparaging religion’.
In keeping with a history of supporting blasphemy laws, the ECHR upheld the conviction. ES’s comments, it ruled, ‘aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not a worthy subject of worship’. ‘Presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of believers’, it added, ‘could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance’. The Austrian court, the ECHR concluded, had ‘carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the rights of others to have their religious feelings protected’.
ES’s ‘seminars’ were promoted by Austria’s far-right Freedom party. The claim that Muhammad is a ‘paedophile’ is often the calling card of bigots, but that should not make it illegal.
The ECHR ruling appears to confuse the protection of rights and of feelings. Believers should be free to worship, assemble and express their beliefs. But they possess no rights to have their beliefs protected from abuse, nor their feelings from being hurt. Calling Marx a monster or Gandhi a bigot may offend Marxists or Indians. They have to put up with it. So should religious believers.
Once hurt feelings become a matter for the law, religious rights themselves become precarious. In 2006, after publication of the Danish cartoons, Iqbal Sacranie, of the Muslim Council of Britain, made derogatory comments about homosexuality on Radio 4’s Today programme. Some gays were offended. The police investigated.
In response, 22 Muslim leaders wrote to the Times demanding the right to ‘freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying’. Those same leaders would have denied that right to newspapers publishing cartoons mocking Muhammad. They are, no doubt, applauding the ECHR ruling.
There is more to this than hypocrisy. In criminalising the giving of offence, religious belief itself may face the censor’s cut. Muslims in particular should beware. In today’s climate, it is Islam that is often targeted, from calls to outlaw the Qur’an to attempts to restrict Muslim worship. Far from protecting the vulnerable, as many claim, such laws help nurture reactionaries, both within Muslim communities, and outside.
The day after the ECHR ruling, Ireland held a referendum on its blasphemy law. Exit polls suggest overwhelming support for scrapping the constitutional ban. This is in keeping with European trends. Britain abolished its blasphemy law in 2008. But while blasphemy laws are disappearing, the idea of ‘the blasphemous’ is not.
Blasphemy has always been as much about preserving social order as protecting religious beliefs. In 1676, England’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, observed that Christianity was central to social life and to permit it to be disparaged would ‘dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved’. The outlawing of blasphemy was a necessary defence of secular political authority.
By the late 20th century, Britain had become more culturally and religiously plural. To uphold social order, many insisted, it was now necessary to protect all faiths.
In 1977, in Britain’s last blasphemy trial, Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name, which describes a centurion’s love for, and sex with, Jesus. Whitehouse won the case. When Gay News appealed, the Law Lords upheld the verdict. In his judgment, Lord Scarman wrote that blasphemy laws ‘safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom’, adding that one needed ‘not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, ridicule and contempt’.
And that is just what has happened. Old-style blasphemy laws have, throughout much of the West, given way to new legislation against hate speech and constraints on the giving of offence. Ireland’s repudiation of blasphemy and the ECHR’s opposition to the disparagement of religion may be two sides of the same shift.
We should no more support secular versions of blasphemy laws than the old religious variety. However different the motives, Muslims should not be protected from vilification of Muhammad any more than Christians from a poem some find vile. Iqbal Sacranie should be able to call homosexuality ‘harmful’. ES should be able to label Muhammad a ‘paedophile’. And we should be free to challenge both as robustly as we wish.
The image is a ‘Portrait of the Prophet Muhammad riding the Buraq’, from India 1820-30. It is in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Many people imagine that it is ‘blasphemous’ within Islam to portray the Prophet. There is, in fact, a long tradition of such portrayals, particularly within Shiite traditions. The ban on such portrayals is relatively modern, and emerges out of the certain Sunni strands.
It is not possible to give offence – it is only possible to take it!
The blaspemy laws have not been abolished in Britain as you say, but only in England and Wales. In Scotland, a blasphemous complaint against Gerry Springer, the Opera was investigted but not pursued. In 2009, the (UK) House of Lords considered an amendment to abolish the Common Law of blasphemy in Northern Ireland, but did nto prceed.
The ECHR justification for its ruling is even more troubling than the ruling itself. As you say, the offence was to make comments ‘aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not a worthy subject of worship’ and was thereby ‘Presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of believers’. Leaving aside the fact that Mohammed is revered but not worshipped (which would, I presume, be the height of idolatry), consider this quotation from Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Is The God Delusion now criminal hate speech?
Thanks again Kenan for speaking out on troubling matters such as Blasphemy laws. Paul Braterman, I have ‘The God Delusion’ amongst many similar books and particularly like the quote you selected. I hope humanity never devolves in to such an impoverished state that it could be thought of as criminal hate speech. However, as you point out, the current trends would suggest that this is a real possibility if we continue to be silent about our eroding freedom of speech.
If I understand correctly, this ruling doesn’t mean that blasphemy is now a crime in the EU. Rather, it means that individual countries in the EU are free to pass blasphemy laws. I wonder if a country could create and enforce a law limiting illegal blasphemous speech to religions formally oppressed by colonialism, such as Islam, and making it impossible to prosecute blasphemy against colonialist religions, such as Christianity. It should not need to be said that this violates equal protection, and its illegality would be a no-brainer in the States. I’m curious if the ECHR is similarly limited to equal protection; I suspect not.
That said, a blasphemy law in a legal environment of equal protection would be a wonderful source of mischief. We already have a precedent that it was blasphemy to make the perfectly true statement that Mohammad consummated his marriage with Aisha when she was nine or ten (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aisha), at least when that statement was coupled with critical language. How about Scientology, founded as a fake ripoff by a drug-addled psychotic? How about pointing out the the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t exist? If I were a rich free speech organization I would have already filed the lawsuits.
A side issue, but are you seriously suggesting that Islam could reasonably be privileged over Christianity on the grounds that Christianity is a colonising religion, but Islam is not? If so, you are showing a remarkably short historical perspective.
And as for those who use the related argument that Christianity is oppressive while Islam is the religion of a persecuted minority, I would invite them to look at the situation in today’s Pakistan or Malaysia
Indeed. I do not accept that position, I only claim that it is popular among the Anglo-European elite, an elite which includes the judges of the ECHR and presumably influences them. I think that position is vicious, but I don’t think the ECHR is going to be swayed by my opinion.
Worrying about actual blasphemy rulings is the least of the problems at the moment I think.
The left have dug their heels in and are coming out fighting against those who go against their ideological world view. See them ganging up on Quilliam spokesman Maajid Nawaz.
I’d be interested to hear Kenan’s take on this sometime.
I’m not sure one way or the other.
ES’s ‘seminars’ were promoted by Austria’s far-right Freedom party. The claim that Muhammad is a ‘paedophile’ is often the calling card of bigots, but that should not make it illegal.
This is further proof of what I said previously. When “bigots” (a.k.a. nazis and fascists) support something and the clear majority of a BAME community oppose it, we progressives should not find it difficult to know whose side we must be on. The Marxist mainstream has never fetishized “free speech”, but recognized that it is entirely legitimate to suppress toxic views, including by violence when necessary. Hate speech is not free speech and this “vilification of Muhammad” is clearly designed to advance a racist, white-supremacist agenda. Why else would the “Freedom” (lol!) Party support it?
I should also note that when you admit to being “in the minority” in supporting “free speech” as a progressive, you are not entirely correct. Rushdie’s hate speech (and this Islamophobic Austrian woman’s too, no doubt) is supported by the majority of whites in the UK and has been rewarded with a knighthood. Just consider the situation: this supposed anti-racist writer (Rushdie) was offered a knighthood by the racist, white-hegemonic state. Rather than rejecting it with contempt, he fell over himself to lick the White Sahib’s boots: “I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way.” Benjamin Zephaniah may not be at Rushdie’s literary level, but Zephaniah did reject a similar honour with contempt when it was offered to him. And Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (again, not at Rushdie’s literary level) was inspired by Zehaniah’s example to return an honour of her own.
“Free speech” is a chimera. When fascists support abuse of the Islamic prophet as a means of advancing their white-supremacist Islamophobia, I stand with the vulnerable minorities who are being targeted, not with the bourgeois liberals who are (knowingly or otherwise) collaborating with the fascists. In terms of your fetishization of “free speech”, you might be happy to line up with Trump, Farage, Orban, Salvini and Bolsonaro (only the latest exhibit in the fascist hate-parade), but you damn-well shouldn’t be.
So, ‘Marxists for blasphemy laws’, eh? Little wonder that Marx wrote that ‘If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.’
Anyone who begins his/her argument by insisting that The Satanic Verses constitutes ‘hate speech’ has neither the moral authority nor the attachment to reality to be taken seriously. Even Islamists like Shabbir Akhtar, who was the spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques during the Rushdie affair, and Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, have changed their minds. Good to see you being more Islamist than hardline Islamists.
As for Trump, Farage, Orban, Salvini and Bolsonaro – Bolsonaro! – being champions of free speech, that’s another one for the fairies, too. (Though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised as you seem to be a ‘Marxist’ more obsessed by skin colour than by class.)
And on what Marx (as opposed to pantomime Marxists) thought about censorship:
‘The real, radical cure for the censorship would be its abolition; for the institution itself is a bad one’
Marx, ‘Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction’, 1842
‘If the immaturity of the human race is the mystical ground for opposing freedom of the press, then certainly censorship is a most reasonable means of hindering the human race from coming of age.’
Marx, ‘On the Freedom of the Press’, 1842
‘The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form. It is a people’s frank confession to itself.’
Marx, ‘On Freedom of the Press’, 1842
[sorry — something went wrong with the reply, so i hope it’s ok to try again]
If you want pantomime, let me repeat Rushdie’s words on being offered a shiny bauble by Tony Blair’s government: “I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way.” Are you not embarrassed by that? If you are ever offered a knighthood, I’d hope you would reject it. If you didn’t, I’d hope you wouldn’t demean yourself with words of acceptance like that. Rushdie, I’m afraid, has become a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside). I won’t say whether you deserve the same label, but I will say that no-one is ever going to use it of me.
“As for Trump, Farage, Orban, Salvini and Bolsonaro – Bolsonaro! – being champions of free speech, that’s another one for the fairies, too.”
Why do you think I said “Freedom (lol!) Party”? I’m perfectly well aware that fascists are not supporters of free speech in the true sense, i.e. speech that advances progressive causes. However, they are most definitely supporters of “free speech”, i.e. hate speech that advances a racist and white-supremacist agenda. And so are you. You line up with Trump and Bolsonaro, not with the ordinary Muslims who have become harder to reach thanks to Rushdie’s and Charlie Hebdo’s self-indulgence and adolescent provocation.
“(Though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised as you seem to be a ‘Marxist’ more obsessed by skin colour than by class.)”
I’m “obsessed” by whatever advances the progress of the human race. In racist states like the US and UK, class and skin colour are intimately linked. Trump has merely taken the mask off what was always there and Trump is fully behind the “right” to abuse, provoke and demean the Muslim community and all other BAME communities.
“And on what Marx (as opposed to pantomime Marxists) thought about censorship:”
Was Lenin a pantomime Marxist then? Or the greatest and most successful Marxist of them all? It was the latter, of course, and Lenin did not fetishize “free speech”. He recognized that a successful revolution must crush its opponents and their opinions ruthlessly and effectively. You might have given up on the idea of revolution and decided to fetishize bogus bourgeois freedoms by way of compensation, but some of us retain the true spirit of Marxism. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott has become both truly popular and truly radical. I repeat: popular, from Latin populus, meaning “the people”.
There is no nonsense about “free speech” in the Labour party, which is precisely why it has received, and will continue to receive, the overwhelming endorsement of BAME communities the length and breadth of Britain. And yeah: Labour say they support border controls, but that’s merely a rhetorical concession in a hostile media environment. No-one doubts that Jeremy and Diane will turn the hostile environment for migrants into a very amicable one. More BAME folk in Britain will mean more progress and less bogus “free speech” for bigots, as you euphemistically put it. I’m a Marxist and I call them what they are: nazis, fascists, racists and haters.
“free speech in the true sense, i.e. speech that advances progressive causes”
I had not intended to comment further, so I shall merely say that as someone who identifies as Progressive I am appalled at this Orwellian terminology. “Who, whom?” (who was the first to say that, I wonder). Who is going to decide what is free speech (Cable Strada?), and on whom is their choice to be inflicted (Rushdie, obviously; Kenan, no doubt; me, I must presume, in the unlikely event that I’m noticed).
And as someone who lives in the East End of Glasgow, I am appalled that anyone can speak as if the UK and US problems of class were a product of the problems of race.
Cable Strada, Corbyn and Abbott the Lenin and Luxemburg of today? Hmm, OK… I can’t work out who is more deluded: you or the Tories who similarly imagine that a Corbyn government will turn Britain Bolshevik.
For all your faux-Leninist posturing, you still can’t get away from the fact that you’re supporting the state suppression of free speech, including blasphemy laws, and have a view on the ‘abuse of the Islamic prophet’ that would put you in the ranks of hardline Islamists. You’re seem so terrified of being called a ‘coconut’ that you’d rather betray the hopes and values and struggles of those millions of Muslims across the world fighting against blasphemy laws, and for equality and freedom of expression. They simply don’t figure in your calculation. Since you like calling things out for what they are, let me call out your argument for what it is: reactionary.
“Corbyn and Abbott the Lenin and Luxemburg of today?”
Given that Luxemburg was a strong critic of Lenin and would probably have ended up under lock-and-key if she’d lived in the Soviet Union, I’m puzzled that you think “Lenin and Luxemburg” are a natural pairing. Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden — “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters” — is not something that Lenin would ever have said or agreed with. Diane would be much better likened to Nadezhda Krupskaya, don’t you think?
“For all your faux-Leninist posturing, you still can’t get away from the fact that you’re supporting the state suppression of free speech, including blasphemy laws,”
I’m baffled by that comment. Lenin implemented the state suppression of “free speech”. He did not allow the enemies of progress to spread their toxic opinions. So I ask: in what way am I a faux Leninist? Are you confusing Lenin with a bourgeois liberal or libertarian?
“and have a view on the ‘abuse of the Islamic prophet’ that would put you in the ranks of hardline Islamists.”
Not at all. Hardline Islamists would ban legitimate critiques of Islam and Muhammad. I’m a Marxist, so I obviously don’t regard religion in a good light. But that is precisely why I object to Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo. Their self-indulgent crudity and scatology make it harder, not easier, to engage practising Muslims in productive, progressive dialogue.
“You’re seem so terrified of being called a ‘coconut’ that you’d rather betray the hopes and values and struggles of those millions of Muslims across the world fighting against blasphemy laws, and for equality and freedom of expression. They simply don’t figure in your calculation.”
See above. I oppose Rushdie’s “free speech” because I support progressive Muslims and do not want to make their struggle harder. Islamists cannot present calm and rational critiques of Islam as evidence of the hatefulness and corruption of the western world. They can easily present Rushdie’s “Prophet’s-wife-as-necro-whore” and CH’s “Muhammad-as-gay-porn-star” as such.
“Since you like calling things out for what they are, let me call out your argument for what it is: reactionary.”
Fine. Marxism is not libertarianism. Marxists do not believe in tolerating anything or anyone who opposes human progress. I think you need to read up on the life of the greatest and most successful Marxist of all time: V.I. Lenin.
“And as someone who lives in the East End of Glasgow, I am appalled that anyone can speak as if the UK and US problems of class were a product of the problems of race.”
Where did I say that? I didn’t say it and never would. But are you claiming that BAME communities are stratified by class in precisely the same way as whites are? That would be nonsense: poverty is worse among BAME communities thanks to racism and white supremacism, which do not affect the white working-class. Irish immigrants did of course suffer a form of racial prejudice, as Glasgow’s history clearly demonstrates, but the white Irish are perfectly capable of forgetting their own history and leveraging white racism against BAME communities. For one horrifying example, see the New York City draft riots.
So, you’re a Marxist who ‘obviously doesn’t regard religion in a good light’ but supports blasphemy laws? And you support ‘progressive Muslims’ who demand freedom of speech but you don’t support freedom of speech because you ‘do not want to make their struggle harder’? Hmm… Must make sense, I suppose, in some universe. Just not in this one.