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The Threat to Free Speech

Religious authorities have long tried to “discipline” free speech when it runs counter to religious teachings or dogmas. The paradigm case in recent years is the Salman Rushdie case. On February 14, 1989, following the 1988 publication of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, the political and spiritual leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a religious edict calling on “all zealous Muslims to execute the author of the book as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, so that no one will dare to insult Islam again.” The case illustrates the difficulty some religious communities have in reconciling their deeply held beliefs with the right to freedom of expression, which “is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.”24

Although the call for murder was rejected by many mainstream Islamic religious leaders, who condemned it as violating Islamic teachings of mercy, most of these same leaders did not defend Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression and asked for the banning of the book. Others, of course, supported the fatwa.

The Rushdie case demonstrated the resonance of the accusation of blasphemy inside of Islam. The responses of leaders of other religions, however, were hardly exemplary. Although they strongly condemned the call for murder, many expressed some sympathy for the Muslim world’s indignation, forming what French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut called “the Holy Alliance of Clergies.”25

The conflict between free speech and religion, indeed, is not limited to Islam. Two years before the Rushdie case, with far less publicity, an Austrian court acting on a complaint submitted by the Catholic diocese of Innsbruck had prohibited the Otto Preminger Institut from showing the film The Council of Love, based on Oskar Panizza’s controversial (and allegedly strongly anti-Catholic) theater play. The judges referred to article 108 of the Austrian Penal Code banning “religious denigration.” In 1994, to the profound dismay of free speech defenders, the sentence was endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights, relying on a provision of the European Convention on the “rights of others.” The ECHR has tended indeed to show far more deference to state interference in freedom of expression where the speech has a religious or moral content than is the case with political or other forms of speech.

The Catholic Church has strongly expressed its hostility toward other books, plays, and films that it considers “collective defamation.” In September 2004, Dan Brown’s best selling novel The Da Vinci Code was banned in Lebanon after complaints from Catholic leaders that it was “offensive to Christianity.” “There are paragraphs that touch the very roots of the Christian religion, said the president of Lebanon’s Catholic Information Center. They say that Jesus Christ had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene... Christianity is not about forgiveness to the point of insulting Jesus Christ.”26

Political correctness in the name of protecting religious sensitivities can have a similarly chilling effect on free speech. In response to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin, the Dutch justice minister, Piet Hein Donner, proposed enforcing a 1932 law banning “scornful blasphemy.” In a parliamentary address said to have “horrified Holland’s free-thinking intelligentsia,”27 the minister said that the law was needed to curb “hateful comments” that were destabilizing the country. As Brussels Free University professor Guy Haarscher has written in another context, “Instead of protecting individuals in their right to adhere to different conceptions of the Good, [a] society [that caters to political correctness] incurs the risk of depending increasingly on organized groups capable of imposing hypocrisy and the domination of the most conventional ‘thought.’”28

[24] European Court of Human Rights, Handyside against United Kingdom, December 7, 1976.

[25] Cited in Le Monde, October 25, 1989.

[26] “Da Vinci Code banned in Lebanon,” BBC News online, September 16, 2004.

[27] Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “Blasphemy law revival upsets the Dutch elite,” The Daily Telegraph, November 18, 2004.

[28] Guy Haarscher, La laïcité (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, Collection Que sais-je?, 2004), p. 93.

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