30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward
Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.
The opening of 2019 marks two dark events in the recent history of free speech: the fourth anniversary of the attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the 30th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the killing of the British-Indian author Salman Rushdie. Both of these events were immediately recognized as attacks against foundational European values. Neither event, however, occasioned any concerted defense of the values in question. Instead, Europe’s highest institutions are now as likely to affirm laws against blasphemy and religious offense as they are to overturn them.
The Charlie Hebdo murders on Jan. 7, 2015, were an especially instructive case in point. On that day, the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi burst into the magazine’s offices and executed 12 people, including cartoonists and journalists. Before fleeing, the brothers shouted, “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed!” whom Charlie Hebdo had lampooned in several disrespectful cartoons. These executions might not have been too shocking to 18th-century Europeans. (In 1766, Jean-François de la Barre was decapitated and then burned along with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary for his “monstrous, execrable blasphemies against God … and the Church.”)
Today’s European leaders, by contrast, were quick to condemn the attack and reassert their commitment to free speech. European Council President Donald Tusk expressed his shock at the “brutal attack against our fundamental values, against freedom of expression which is a pillar of our democracy.”
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.”
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.
In 2010, the OIC proposed a resolution based on the wording of Ireland’s blasphemy ban (since repealed). Then U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief encouraged European democracies to abolish blasphemy bans since they provide cover for illiberal countries where such bans are used to persecute minorities and stifle religious dissent. The consequences for those targeted are often extreme.
On Oct. 31, 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court surprisingly acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row due to a blasphemy conviction. Then in December, just weeks after Bibi’s acquittal, two brothers were sentenced to death in Pakistan for posting “derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet.” Saudi Arabia sentenced Ahmad al-Shamri to the death penalty for blasphemy and atheism in 2017 after he had tweeted irreverently about the Prophet Mohammed and Islam. And in 2018, Mauritania adopted a law making the death penalty mandatory for “blasphemous speech.” In countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt, dozens of people convicted of blasphemy languish in prison, many simply for belonging to religious minorities, professing unorthodox religious opinions, or advocating secularism. But running afoul of the law may not always be the worst consequence of violating blasphemy norms. Several of the countries that punish blasphemy also experience vehement mob violence aimed at religious dissenters.
The acquittal of Bibi caused mass demonstrations in Pakistani cities, with protesters demanding not only the killing of Bibi but also the deaths of Supreme Court justices who applied secular principles of due process rather than religious dogma. Bibi’s lawyer fled Pakistan out of fear that he might be killed, as became the fate of the politician Salman Taseer, who criticized his own country’s blasphemy laws after Bibi’s initial conviction. Bibi is currently in hiding so as not to suffer the same fate as the Afghan woman Farkhunda Malikzada, who was beaten, dragged behind a car, stoned, burned, and left as human garbage by a mob after being accused of burning the Quran.
The intolerant mob violence makes a mockery out of the court’s argument that it may be necessary for democracies to punish religious offenses. The oppressive history and practice of blasphemy laws cannot be washed away by insisting that the protection of religious feelings pursues the interest of tolerance and religious peace. Having your innermost convictions questioned, criticized, or mocked does not threaten these crucial values—indeed, a tolerant society is one that allows this questioning. The main threat to social peace comes not from those who challenge religious dogma but from those willing to kill for it, whether on the streets of Islamabad or Paris.
In the past decade, a growing number of European countries have recognized that laws against blasphemy and religious insult are neither compatible with their commitment to freedom of expression nor defensible in a world where religious minorities and dissidents face the death penalty, floggings, or lengthy prison sentences for following their conscience. The United Kingdom, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Malta, and Ireland have all abolished blasphemy bans. Still, around 20 percent of European countries formally criminalize either blasphemy or religious insult.
Rushdie no longer lives in hiding, but the fatwa still formally remains in force 30 years after it was issued. And while Charlie Hebdo continues to outrage right, left, and center, its continued freedom to do so comes at the price of an annual $1.7 million in security costs. Against this backdrop, there could be no better occasion for European democracies to lay the crime of blasphemy to rest for good.
Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen based think tank focusing on human rights and the rule of law and the host and producer of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.