A New Form of Censorship is Spooking Through Europe
Guest Commentary: Critique of a problematic decision by the European Court of Human Rights
By Ralph Schöllhammer
Much has been reported in the past few days on the decision by the European Court of Human Rights that the designation of the Prophet Mohammed as “pedophilic” in the context of a 2009 seminar led by the Austrian Islam-critic Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff is not legally covered by the right of free expression of opinion. The waves caused by this decision were detectable even in the USA, where the popular Fox show, “Tucker Carlson” dedicated a full segment to the case.
Independent of whether this was a “scandalous decision,” it indicates a disturbing trend: a re-clericalization of public space in which — under cover of religion — discussions of broad interest are strangled in the cradle. The decision weighs the right to freedom of expression against the right to protection of religious feelings, to decide whether the latter must prevail in order to preserve religious peace in Austria.
Intention is Problematic
The statement designating Mohammed’s behavior as pedophilic is thus moved to the neighborhood of biased persecution, and a new legal situation is created. According to the European Court, it is not the statement as such that is the problem, but the intent with which it was made. That is, not to state an objective, debatable point, but to be contemptuous of Mohammed as an object of religious veneration.
Strictly speaking, “pedophilia” is not an expletive, but the description of a sexual interest in pre-pubescent children. That this practice is so widely condemned bespeaks progress. But this situation is not so long-standing as one might think. In the first half of the 19th century, the average age of European prostitutes was 16, and it was not unusual to encounter 14-year-olds in bordellos. On the streets of 1790 London, it was possible to walk by an eleven-year-old prostitute without experiencing a moral qualm.
The situation has improved since then, because segments of the (often religiously inspired) civilian society found these conditions intolerable and were able to bring the majority of society to their point of view. The same thing was true of the abolition of slavery — an institution whose existence had been viewed as more or less God-given until the beginning of the Enlightenment.
Anyone who reads the works of 19th century social reformers, from William Wilberforce to Harriet Beecher Stowe, will conclude that their intent, too, was to be contemptuous of contemptible situations — and fortunately this was already covered by the right of freedom expression.
Social change begins with criticism of existing conditions, and this criticism must command the entire arsenal of language: academic, humorous, satirical and, yes, even insulting. Anything that does not approach conscious slander or a call to violence should, in case of doubt, be allowed.
The European Court may honestly be convinced that it has decided in the interests of coexistence and of Muslims in Europe. In reality, however, an actual problem that exists for women all over the world is now more difficult to discuss.
Not just a problem of Islam
The accusation of pedophilia may be an insult in the West, but in many countries that use the Koran as a legal reference point, it is nonetheless (at least partially legally) a reality. The organization “Too-young-to-wed’ documents yearly thousands of instances of girls married before reaching the age of 15.
To anticipate a theological debate: Naturally child marriages and de facto state-legitimized pedophilia are not an exclusively Islamic problem. But the religious dimension exists, and discussing that should not be forbidden by the courts.
Even if Sabaditsch-Wolff’s choice of words is rejected, the content of her statement is definitely worthy of discussion. Her statements should be dealt with intellectually and not legally. Nothing would be better than if it transpired that Mohammed were not guilty of pedophilia, even by today’s standards. Such knowledge could be the first step to a more humane life for millions of women forcibly married. It would mean that the practice of child marriage could be questioned theologically. The decision of the European Court of Human Rights has made this discussion more difficult, if not impossible.
Truth has little chance
The idea that courts should decide which commentaries are “constructive” and therefore allowable, and which are not, is untenable. It is a de facto abolition of the basic principle of freedom of expression. The present case should alert us to how far advanced this new form of censorship is.
The enfant terrible of French literature, Michel Houellebecq, was forced to defend himself in court because of the anti-Islamic views of a fictional character in his books. The leader of the Front National, Marine LePen, was ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination because she had propagated videos showing crimes of the Islamic State.
In the legal proceeding against Dutch politician Geert Wilders concerning his Islam-hostile statements, the prosecution declared that “it is irrelevant whether Wilders’ statements are factually correct. What is relevant is that they are illegal.”
Truth has little chance when preservation of religious peace is at stake. The actions of the European justice system have encouraged precisely those circles which pose the greatest danger for internal security. Anyone who uses terror as a justification for inhibiting public discussion is encouraging those who have already tried in the past to inhibit it through violence — for instance, the people behind the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015.
Danger for democracy
The Canadian columnist George Jonas said in 2013 that the greatest accomplishment of terrorism was not hijacking airplanes, but inhibiting public discussion, and thereby being a danger to the foundations of democracy. Sadly, the decision of the European Court has contributed to bringing this about and further reduced the possibility of pubic discourse.
For previous posts on the “hate speech” prosecution of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, see Elisabeth’s Voice: The Archives.