Religious Freedom vs. Religious Feelings

After nine years in prison, a Christian woman was acquitted of blasphemy by the Pakistan Supreme Court in mid-October.

Almost immediately, however, massive street rallies and protests organized by Tehreek-e-Labaik—the anti-blasphemy party—forced the government to reconsider. The government agreed to ban Asia Bibi from leaving the country, and it agreed to allow her blasphemy acquittal to be challenged.

Her chances of survival are slim if she is forced to stay in Pakistan. Indeed, her lawyer has already fled to Europe in fear of his life. Moreover, several years ago, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province was murdered by his bodyguard because he supported Bibi and worked for changes to the blasphemy laws. Thousands attended the assassin’s funeral after his execution, and a mosque was named after him. The governor? Religious leaders warned Pakistanis not to attend his funeral or pray for his soul.

What was Asia Bibi’s crime? During an argument with Muslim neighbors who told her to convert to Islam, she replied, “I’m not going to convert. I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammed ever do to save mankind?” In some societies, such exchanges often lead to a mutual agreement to talk about something else. In Pakistan, they can lead to charges of blasphemy.

 

President Obama famously said, “The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.” And Pakistan seems to be one of those places where slanderers of the prophet will not enjoy a bright future.

But how about in Europe? Surely, the blasphemy laws don’t reach that far?

Or don’t they? At about the same time that Asia Bibi was acquitted and then betrayed by the Pakistani government, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the conviction of Austrian citizen Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff for having impugned the integrity of Muhammad.

Her crime? In 2009, during the course of a three-part seminar, she mentioned that Muhammad married his wife when she was six years old, and added “What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?”

Now, Muhammad died 1,400 years ago, but apparently there is no statute of limitations on defaming a prophet. However, this is not really a case of defamation. A defamatory statement is a false statement, and Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was six and the consummation of the marriage when she was nine is fully attested to in Islamic sources (Bukhari 7:62:88; 5:58:234). Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff wasn’t put on trial for defamation, but, in effect, for blasphemy—for speaking of Muhammad in an unfavorable way.

If you’re on the European Court of Human Rights, you can’t let yourself be detoured by such a piddling matter as the truth when there are more important values at stake—such as the reputation of the prophet and the importance of people’s feelings.

“’People’s feelings?’” you ask. Yes. Sabaditsch-Wolff had asked the ECHR to rule whether or not her earlier conviction by an Austrian court infringed on her freedom of speech. The ECHR ruled that it had not. Here’s how they put it:

The European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Why not? Because:

The domestic courts carefully balanced the applicant’s right to freedom of expression with the rights of others to have their religious feelings protected, and to have religious peace preserved in Austrian society.

No doubt you’ve seen the figure of Lady Justice that adorns so many courthouses across the globe.   Thanks to the ECHR, we now know what’s being weighed in the balance scale she holds. In one cup are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and similar lightweight rights. In the other cup are hurt feelings. Nowadays the latter seem to outweigh all other considerations.

The ECHR’s “balancing” of free speech with feelings is what is normally called a “dangerous precedent.” It means that in the future your freedom of speech won’t count for anything more than your neighbor’s hair-trigger temper.

You only have to look a few thousand miles away to see how this balancing act works out in practice. The Pakistan government balanced Asia Bibi’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion against the rights of a howling mob to have “their religious feelings protected.” Not surprisingly, they decided that the mob had the weightier case.

To my knowledge, there weren’t any howling mobs outside the European Court of Human Rights. But the ECHR wasn’t taking any chances. They were certainly aware of the numerous Muslim riots in France, Germany, Sweden, and other European countries in recent years. And they most likely hadn’t forgotten the worldwide riots that ensued after an unflattering cartoon of Muhammad appeared in a Danish newspaper. Nor are they likely to have forgotten the “spontaneous” worldwide riots that erupted after Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address.

The Court’s decision speaks about protecting “religious feelings” and preserving “religious peace.” But it wasn’t meant to protect the feelings of Catholics, Jews, or Seventh-Day Adventists. Rather it was there to protect Catholics, Jews, and Seventh-Day Adventists from the outraged feelings of Muslims.

The “protection money” that the non-Muslim in Europe needs to pay is the surrender of their right to freedom of expression—at least in regard to those expressions that may offend the ultra-sensitive feelings of some Muslims.

If nothing else, the cases of Asia Bibi and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff should remind us that Islamic law is not meant to apply only to Muslims. Some parts of it—such as the blasphemy laws—are meant to apply to everyone.

At least that’s how the Muslim world sees it. But why should the Western World accept this imposition of their religious rules on our society? Why do Western countries so often work against their own self-interest?

One answer it that Western freedoms can be easily leveraged—both by Muslim activists and by Western appeasers—to undermine Western freedoms. Leftist lawyers and Muslim “lawfare” practitioners have learned how to take advantage of religious liberty and free speech in order to eventually impose a system that protects neither freedom of speech nor freedom of religion.

But there is another factor to consider—i.e., another Western “value”—that is being taken advantage of by those who don’t respect Western values. I put the word in scare quotes because this recently minted “value” is of doubtful merit. I refer to the primacy of feelings in Western societies—the elevation of emotion over every other quality.

As you have undoubtedly noticed, it’s increasingly the case that the argument from emotion trumps arguments from reason. Debates over immigration, for example, are not settled by reason and evidence, but by photos of drowned children and of weary refugees gazing hopefully through barbed wire fences.

The argument from feelings is now being put forward by one of Europe’s highest courts, the ECHR. The right to freedom of expression, says the Court, must be balanced by the “religious feelings” of others. Presumably, the stronger those feelings, the stronger the case. But how do you know who has the most strongly-felt feelings? That’s easy. They are the ones who are willing to express their outrage most strongly—if need be by taking to the streets in violent protest.

The irony is that our sentimental attachment to feelings über alles may someday soon result in the kind of society where it’s best to keep one’s thoughts—and one’s feelings—to oneself.

Note: After finishing this piece, I learned that Asia Bibi had been freed from Multan jail and flown to Islamabad. It is being reported that she and her family will be flown out of the country. If she ends up in Europe, let’s hope that she doesn’t run afoul of the European courts by repeating her insensitive doubts about Muhammad’s salvific powers.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are Pakistani protesters shouting slogans against Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing a death sentence for blasphemy, at a protest in Karachi on October 13, 2016. (Photo credit: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

William Kilpatrick

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William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com

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