Free Speech Roundup

The Dutch parliament on November 29, 2012, abolished Holland's blasphemy law in a rare victory for intellectual freedom often under attack today from various self-anointed defenders of Islam. Yet the continuing existence of similar statutes throughout free societies in Europe and elsewhere, along with recent legal actions, show that the battle between Islamic faith and freedom is far from over.

Drafted in the 1930s, the Dutch blasphemy law had not seen application for the last half century, prompting legislators to consider the law obsolete. Electoral losses among various rightwing parties in parliamentary elections last September also weakened the law's supporters. Additionally, some observers credit the successful defense in June 2011 of Dutch politician Geert Wilders against hate speech charges concerning his condemnation of Islam with an indirect role in influencing the law's abolition.

Nonetheless, the Pew Forum has recently documented that blasphemy laws, along with prohibitions of apostasy and defamation, are widespread throughout Europe and the wider world. As of 2011, 47% of the world's countries and territories have "have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy (abandoning one's faith), or defamation (disparagement or criticism of particular religions or religion in general)." Religious defamation laws "were most common in Europe, where 36 of the region's 45 countries (80%) had such laws or policies in 2011." Most of "these laws tended to penalize religious hate speech rather than defamation of religion." A blasphemy law in Greece (Article 189 of the Greek Criminal Code) produced a prosecution last September against a Greek man who on Facebook mocked a nationally-beloved Orthodox priest recently deceased in 1994.

Yet the Christian Science Monitor noted in the story on the Greek case that most legal actions against irreverent speech today involve attacks upon Islam.This includes the December 7, 2012, charges brought against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for its publication of cartoons mocking Islam's prophet Muhammad on September 19, 2012, at the height of the global controversy concerning the internet trailer Innocence of Muslims. As described by one French commentator, two previously "totally unknown" organizations, the Algerian Democratic Union for Peace and Progress (Rassemblement Démocratique Algérien pour la Paix et le Progrèsor or RDAP), and its affiliate, the United Arab Organization (Organisation Arabe Unieor or OAU), both led by a "certain Zaoui Saada" (actually Saada Zaoui) have brought the charges. Claiming that the drawings were "damaging to the honor and reputation of the Prophet Mohammed and the Muslim community," the plaintiffs represented by their Harvard University-trained lawyer, Anthony Bem, are claiming €780,000 in costs and damages.

Bem on the same day also addressed a letter to the rightwing British Freedom Party (BFP) threatening suit on behalf of Zaoui and his two organizations under French libel law for a BFP YouTube posting of Innocence of Muslims. Bem's legal impertinence received a vitriolic response in defense of free speech from a BFP representative condemning him as a "jumped up jackass." Noting that people in the United Kingdom do not "have to follow French laws," the BFP response extolled "freedom of speech to criticize... within certain accepted boundaries" and refused to "accept that the poisonous doctrines of a long dead seventh century psychopath are entitled to any respect from freedom loving people." The response rejected the "thinking that anyone who disrespects said dead seventh century psychopath should be killed by rioting mobs for telling the truth about him." The respondent refused to "bow down to threats from litigious cockroaches such as yourself and your religious slave masters." The response ended by quoting the memorable response of General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division surrounded during the December 1944 Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, Belgium, to a German surrender demand: "NUTS!".

In Germany, meanwhile, a prosecution under Section 166 ("Defamation of religions, religious and ideological associations") of that country's criminal code was to begin on December 10, 2012, before postponement occurred. The defendant is Ralf Mayer, operator of the conservative German website Forum für Deutschland, described by the German journalist and blogger Michael Mannheimer as "surely one of the most visited German Islam-critical websites overall" with its some 10,000 daily visitors. As previously reported by this author, Mayer incurred the wrath of German authorities for his single-sentence description in an April 3, 2011, internet article of the "erroneous teachings of the pedophile goat herder of the 7th century A.D.," Muhammad, "who very probably was psychologically disturbed." In a personal conversation with Mannheimer, Mayer expressed the wish to accept a jail term in lieu of a fine if convicted and to begin his sentence with a hunger strike.

As one German lawyer familiar with Section 166 prosecutions has noted to the author in an email, the outcomes of such cases often defy objective standards. Germany's leading satire magazine, Titanic, for example, offers for sale online several postcards showing various Jesus figures used as household items, including a toilet roll holder crucifix that graced the magazine cover in 1995.The postcards carry the inscription "Does Jesus still play a role? (Spielt Jesus nocheine Rolle?)."

By contrast, a German court in Lüdinghausen, North Rhine-Westphalia province sentenced a 61-year old retiree on February 23, 2006, to one year probation for stamping toilet paper rolls with "Koran, the Holy Koran" and mailing them to television stations as well as 22 mosques and Muslim cultural clubs. Previously convicted multiple times for other offenses, the man also had to perform 300 hours of social service. The convicted presented himself as a man who had lived 15 years in Muslim-majority countries like Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, thereby developing a strong antipathy towards Islam.

Referencing the then-current events surrounding Muslim rage expressed throughout the Middle East against critical Danish caricatures of Muhammad, the presiding judge Carsten Krumm noted that the case's "importance had increased considerably due to the global political situation."The Islamic Republic of Iran seemed to agree, as demonstrated by a letter discussing the affair sent to the German Foreign Ministry before the trial. Prosecuting authorities spoke of a "clear signal sent outwards" by the conviction. The convicted in turn perceived the importance of his actions for various Muslims through numerous death threats, necessitating his police protection.

For the German lawyer, the imbalanced treatment of Section 166 and intellectual freedoms guaranteed, in principle, without limit by Germany's Basic Law (Grundgesetz) or constitution in its Article 5, were "nowhere clearer" than in these two cases. Judges limited the constitutional guarantees through unwritten "constitutionally immanent limits." In the process, judges could engage in "obscure weighing mechanisms" such that the resulting judgment reflected "whatever the judge at the very moment thinks." Hereby the "political convictions of the judges and their political cowardice played a decisive role."

The lawyer concluded that an "enlightened society" would not have a blasphemy law not needed by existing, and not merited by nonexisting Gods. Practically speaking, though, a "society defines itself by the kind of blasphemy" punished. Thus for the lawyer, "Germany is not a Christian, but rather a Muhammadan country, because Christ may be blasphemed, but not Muhammad."

Such unequal favoritisms and infringements of free speech are damaging in multiple ways to a free society. Suppression of debate and discussion, criticism and condemnation of religious beliefs weakens the intellectual scrutiny these topics deserve. Nor can such suppression serve the social harmony sought by blasphemy and other laws, as the condemned will merely go underground with their previously expressed hostile views only sharpened through smoldering resentments. Legal victors, in turn, will merely enjoy a false sense of religious, philosophical entitlement. Blasphemy laws, and any other legal provisions that de facto serve the same end under different guises, belong in the past that blasphemy laws so eminently evoke.