Pressure on European Blasphemy Laws Threatens Freedom of Expression

In Europe there is a tension between those who support freedom of expression and those who claim that their freedom of religion extends to freedom from their religion being offended.  Laws protect both freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but recent events threaten to expand the scope of freedom of religion into freedom from religious insult.

Historically, Europe has sought to protect freedom of expression to a high degree.  The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) issued a report  in October 2008 [1] concluding with these recommendations:

a) That incitement to hatred, including religious hatred, should be the object of criminal sanctions.
b) That it is neither necessary nor desirable to create an offence of religious insult (that is, insult to religious feelings), without the element of incitement to hatred as an essential component.
c) That the offence of blasphemy should be abolished where it still exists and should not be reintroduced. 

The report indicated that blasphemy remained an offence in some European countries (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and San Marino – and Ireland added blasphemy as a crime in 2009), with many others instead, or in addition, making it a crime to insult religion (Andorra, Cyprus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine).  There is, however, no general definition of what counts as religious insult.

There have been recent cases where European laws regarding blasphemy and religious insult have been applied in ways that significantly limit the principle of freedom of expression, where the accused in each case has been neither inciting hatred nor violence through their expressions or actions.

Earlier this year the European Humanist Federation  reported on three actors in Greece who were arrested and charged for blasphemy after taking part in a play depicting Jesus Christ and his apostles as gay. [2]  This action prompted requests to the Greek Minister of Justice for blasphemy laws in Greece to be abolished.  The request was debated in the Greek parliament and rejected.  A young Greek has recently been charged under the same laws for mocking a Greek Orthodox Priest on Facebook. [3] 

In October of this year Fazil Say was arrested in Turkey on charges of insulting Islam and offending Muslims due to posts he made on Twitter [4].  The controversial tweets include one that read “I am not sure if you have also realised it, but all the pricks, low-lives, buffoons, thieves, jesters, they are all Allahists.”.  Say faces up to 18 months in prison if convicted.

It was also reported recently that the Supreme Court in Poland has determined that a rock musician, Adam Darski, may face charges of offending religious feelings through tearing up a bible during a performance in 2007. [5]  The musician and his supporters say the action was simply artistic expression and not with the direct intention to offend, but the court decided that even if the actor did not intend to offend, a crime was committed.  A lower court will now decide if the musician is guilty, and he may face up to two years in jail.

The recent violent reaction in the Islamic world to the Innocence of Muslims film has resulted in pressure to strengthen blasphemy laws.  The Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has called for Islamophobia to be recognized as a crime against humanity, and for international regulations to be put in place against attacks on what people deem sacred. [6]  There is much pressure, from Islamic interests in particular such as the Arab League, for freedom of expression to be limited so that disrespect for religion or for prophets of religion is disallowed.

The cases mentioned above show that, even in Europe, simple non-violent expression can be a criminal offence if the religious deem it offensive.  This, and the additional pressure from Islamic countries, or the representatives of any religion which thinks it should be beyond criticism or mockery, indicates that freedom of expression is far from safe, even in largely secular Europe. 

References

[1] Venice Commision (2008) Report
[2] European Humanist Federation (2012) Blasphemy laws in Greece make new victims
[3] Weisenthal (2012) 27-Year Old In Greece Arrested For Blaspheming A Monk On Facebook
[4] Cheviron (2012) Acclaimed Turkish Pianist Say on Trial for Blasphemy 
[5] Szymanowski, Lowe (2012) Court rules against Polish rocker who tore up Bible
[6] Harrod (2012) World leaders Rally for Blasphemy Laws

 

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