Europe's fight over religious free speech flares up again
Europe's fight over free speech flares up again
2:21 AM, October 5, 2012
by Stuart Braun, Special for USA TODAY
BERLIN - Bans on an anti-Islam video. Forbidding protests against it. Arrests for blasphemy.
The ongoing furor over a video and cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet Mohammed has reignited old dilemmas over free speech in Europe, with calls for stricter blasphemy laws, bans on protests and debates over how much free speech to allow.
"I don't think we can get into the situation in which any minority sect, any religion, is allowed to demarcate the things that other people are allowed to say," said Ben Tonra, who specializes in European relations at Dublin University in Ireland. "For me personally, the primacy has got to be given to free speech."
But not all agree with this in Europe, which has a history of curtailing speech the government deems offensive or disruptive. Governments here do not have constitutions that enshrine the rights of individuals to express themselves, and are looking for ways to legally prevent their citizens from criticizing Islam however crudely.
Russia, which recently jailed a rock band for singing a song against President Vladimir Putin, ordered the video The Innocence of Muslims banned. And Putin announced he is pushing for an anti-blasphemy law on "insulting religions and people's religious sentiment."
The German government is considering whether to find a way to prevent a group from showing the video to the public. France has banned other mocking images of Mohammed and it continues to face protests over a French magazine publishing provocative cartoons of Mohammed.
Unlike the United States, free speech is limited in Europe with numerous statutes that ban hate speech, blasphemy, Holocaust denial and even phrases deemed insults to bureaucrats and police officers.
When Germany's far right political party, Pro Deutschland, announced it planned to screen the video The Innocence of Muslims politicians responded by trying to tighten 140-year-old blasphemy laws. After all, Germany has an estimated 4 million Muslims and its embassy in Sudan was set on fire last month by men egged on by Islamist leaders.
But German Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich opposed the measures, saying that German law also protects "freedom of expression and artistic freedom."
Muslim nations say Europe's reluctance to ban insults to Islam show that the West is anti-Islam. Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf demanded an international ban on a film he equated to "hate speech" and "blasphemy."
"(It's) equal to the worst kind of anti-Semitism or other kind of bigotry," he added.
Some European nations have blasphemy laws that have shielded Christian faiths. In Greece, a 27-year-old man was arrested for blasphemy last week after posting "insulting religious" material on a Facebook page satirizing a famous Greek monk. He faces up to two years in jail.
Free speech advocates in Europe say criminalizing offensive speech is not a solution to maintaining order.
"Blasphemy laws ... almost inevitably contradict free speech by banning debate about religion, and should be scrapped altogether," said Agnes Callamard, director of Article 19, an international free speech advocacy group based in London.
But Callamard agreed there have to be some limits.
"States are obliged to prohibit certain speech that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence," she said, noting that such limits are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights â?? ratified by a vast majority of the world's nations.
"States must promote equality and freedom of expression jointly," she added. "They can do this by protecting the right to be heard and the right to speak, by promoting intercultural understanding, supporting diverse and pluralistic media, and so on."
German courts recently upheld free speech rights when politicians have tried to stop the airing of provocative material. In May, a small right wing party, Pro-NRW (North Rhine-Westphalia), held up anti-Islamic caricatures in front of mosques â?? some depicting Muslims as terrorists. Some Muslims in Bonn responded with violent protests.
Ralf Jaeger, interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, banned the cartoons. But the Federal Constitutional Court overruled him, saying the caricatures alone did not represent a grave enough threat to public order and security to limit free speech. Still, the court could have ruled otherwise.
The French response to cartoons lampooning Mohammed that were published in the weekly French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, shows Europe's confused approach to freedom of expression, analysts say. The largely secular and atheistic French have accommodated insulting portrayals of Christianity. And when protesters threatened to voice their opinions by marching to oppose the cartoons, French officials banned the marches.
"I think genuinely that is a discussion and debate that has to happen at a national level because if you take Germany, there are particular sensitivities and particular historical resonances which are different than for example would exist in the French context," Tonra said.
Individual thoughts on European history is particularly tricky. French President Francois Hollande is drafting a new law to punish ongoing denial of the 1915-16 Armenian genocide by Turkey. Denying the Holocaust happened is a crime in some European countries.
Timothy Garton Ash, director of Free Speech Debate, a research project at the University of Oxford, said such well-intentioned laws could be counter-productive.
"When you start using the law, you're taking a very big hammer and only hitting a few very small nails â?? that's the trouble with the way hate speech laws are applied," he said. "They only tend to hit one or two people, often in a random and inconsistent way."
But in Germany and Austria, the carrying of Nazi symbols like the swastika or the claims that the Nazis did not murder 6 million Jews is seen as a movement to bring back the death squads and concentration camps of World War II. Such expression can carry criminal penalties and in one case, British historian David Irving was sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison for Holocaust denial.
"That was a huge mistake â?? there should be no taboos in the discussion of knowledge," said Garton Ash of Irving's sentence. "The Austrian court, by imprisoning him, enabled him to pose as a martyr for free speech. It's a classic example of how counter-productive such laws can be."
He says the only solution is to counter offensive speech with "more and better speech, which is the classic First Amendment and my personal position."
He pointed to a devout British Muslim, Syed Mahmood, who's widely viewed YouTube video, "A Muslim's Reaction to Muhammad Movie Trailer," declared abhorrence for the anti-Muslim film but strongly opposed any violent response.
"It's such a brilliant example," Ash said. "It's a great example of what you can do with new media to counter that sort of hatred."