Two recent events, one good news, the other bad, reveal a disturbing tendency in current affairs when considered together.
In the referendum held on October 26th, Ireland voted solidly (65%) in favour of abolishing the anti-blasphemy provision of its constitution. In a country known for its strongly Catholic tradition, this is the third recent referendum in which the electorate has rejected a key aspect of Catholic doctrine. In May of this year, the Irish voted massively (66%) to repeal the constitutional provision which banned abortion in almost all circumstances. And, in May of 2018, they voted decisively (61%) to recognize same-sex marriage. Clearly, Ireland has set its sights on modernity.
We should also mention, by the way, that the Spanish Congress of Deputies recently resolved to repeal a law penalizing “offences to religious sentiments”. Furthermore, Denmark repealed its anti-blasphemy law on 2nd June 2017. Norway repealed its law in May of 2015, following the terrorist attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January of that year.
However, on the very day preceding the most recent Irish referendum, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rendered a decision (E.S. v. AUSTRIA) which goes very much in an opposite direction. The ECHR upheld the conviction of an Austrian woman for inciting religious intolerance, because, during a public seminar, she had alleged that Muhammad was a pedophile as he had married a six year old girl and consummated the marriage when she was nine. Thus the Court confirmed the decision of the Austrian court to convict the woman for “disparaging religious doctrines.” According to the ECHR, freedom of expression in this case is limited by the importance of protecting “religious feelings” and preserving “religious peace.” This decision constitutes a flagrant attack on freedom of expression and a return of the offense of blasphemy under a new name.
One Step Forward, One Step Back
Thus we have two almost simultaneous events, one, the Irish referendum, which pushes back against religious obscurantism by repealing an anti-blasphemy law, and another, the ECHR ruling, which reinforces this obscurantism by censoring speech on the pretext that it offended religious sentiments. But there is nevertheless a major difference between the two: the repealed Irish provision, although applying in principle to all religions, in reality involved the Christian religion, and more specifically Catholicism, given the traditions in that country; but the ECHR decision applies to a tenet of Islamic doctrine, specifically the act of making a critical assertion about the so-called prophet of that religion. Thus, it is Christian obscurantism that has been pushed back, while Islamic obscurantism has advanced.
Notice also that both the Spanish legislature and the ECHR used similar language, that is, the concept of protecting “religious feelings.” But the former planned to repeal such protection, whereas the latter sought to reinforce it. Further, in the Spanish case, as well as the Danish and Norwegian cases, the push-back against religious obscurantism occurs in a country which is traditionally Christian.
Why did the European Court make such a backward ruling? Grégor Puppinck, director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), which intervened in the case on the side of the complainant, declared in an interview:
“I believe this is a very serious decision indeed. First, because it resigns itself to the intolerance and even the violence of Muslims in the face of criticism, and renounces the firm defense of freedom of expression over Islam. In fact, it is the very violence of Muslims that would justify and demand that their beliefs be more protected against criticism.”
In fact, the decision of the ECHR would have justified condemning the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo and of many others.
And yet, that same Court ruled twice recently to protect freedom of expression when Christian beliefs were involved. In January of 2018 the Court refused to condemn advertising in Lithuania which represented Christ and Mary as junkies. The court also ruled in favour of the freedom of expression of the group Pussy Riots which demonstrated noisily in an orthodox church in Moscow.
The Situation in Canada
Here in Canada, we notice a similar tendency. With Bill C-51, the federal government is preparing to repeal the anti-blasphemy law, i.e. paragraph 296 of the Criminal Code. But the same government, on 23rd May 2017, adopted Motion M-103 which condemns so-called “Islamophobia” and falsely conflates race and religion. Furthermore, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, having been mandated to investigate the alleged phenomenon given the very dubious name of “systemic racism and religious discrimination,” issued a report which dangerously aggravates this confusion between race and religion, thus throwing the door wide open for religions to misappropriate resources allocated to existing anti-racist programmes and use them for their own benefit.
We notice also that the legislature of the province of Saskatchewan just recently opened its new session with a Muslim prayer.
Thus, in Canada, a traditionally Christian country, the offense of blasphemy is on the way out. But at the same time, measures are taken to protect religion, and specifically the religion Islam, against criticism. The crime of blasphemy is leaving by the front door, yet is returning through the back door with a new format specially adapted to favour Islam.
The Return of All Forms of Fundamentalism
The decision by the European Court, as well as the position of those who oppose any ban on religious symbols worn by public servants, are both based on the same principle: giving freedom of religion a priority above and beyond any other right, that is, giving religion an undeserved privilege. That is extremely dangerous.
We can be sure that other religions are jealously watching as privileges are given to Islam and will try to profit from them by demanding similar advantages. By granting privileges to fundamentalist Islam, our politicians are paving the way for the return of all forms of fundamentalism, including, of course, the Christian variety.