Secular Europe: Blasphemy on the Books

Hannah Wallace

At the end of 2018, a majority of Ireland’s population voted to remove the country’s blasphemy law from its constitution. The debate around the issue provided a very public reminder that such laws still exist in Europe. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), seventy-one countries have blasphemy legislation on the statute books. The majority of these are found in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Thirteen are found in Europe, while countries such as Norway and Demark abolished their own religious-insult provisions only in the past few years. Greece’s blasphemy laws were applied more frequently to protect the Orthodox Church before they were repealed in 2019 during constitutional changes. The new conservative government had, only six months later, touted the idea of reintroducing blasphemy legislation but scrapped the idea after public outcry. The image of Europe as a cradle of liberal secularism is somewhat belied by restrictive legislation that has, in recent years, re-emerged to curtail free speech.

Blasphemy is generally defined as the act of insulting or showing contempt for God or the sacred. The scope of European blasphemy legislation and its application varies between countries. In some countries, such antiquated laws remain largely dormant. In others, particularly countries where the Catholic Church is still firmly established, blasphemy laws carry more weight. In Poland, the Catholic hierarchy still wields disproportionate influence on social and political life. The Church and conservative politicians view the country’s blasphemy law as a bulwark against the country’s growing secular population, using it to censor and criminalize. Artists are often most likely to fall foul of the law when it comes to ridiculing or criticizing religion. Polish pop star Dorota “Doda” Rabczewska was given a heavy fine after a TV interview in 2009 in which she claimed of the Bible, “It is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes.” Christian groups took exception to this remark and lobbied the country’s prosecutor for her conviction. In Italy, conviction can similarly result in imprisonment or a fine. In the United Kingdom, England and Wales abolished the offenses of “blasphemy” and “blasphemous libel” in 2008; however, blasphemy laws remain on the statute books—although redundantly—in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even in countries where legislation remains inactive or unenforceable, there is always a risk that it will be invoked to criminalize freedom of speech or expression.

As with all European countries, such laws were first introduced to protect the state religion. However, the application of these laws has, in recent years, expanded in some countries. As a consequence of Europe’s changing demographics and the decline of Christian identity, states have sought more aggressively to protect the feelings of believers of minority faiths, often to the detriment of free speech. One of the most recent and high-profile examples was that of an Austrian woman convicted for comments she made regarding the prophet Muhammad. The conviction was subsequently upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. The conviction centered on several seminars given by the woman on Islam, in which she referred to the consummation of the marriage of Muhammed and his nine-year-old wife, Aisha, as “pedophilia.” Despite its being a commonly used anti-Muslim trope, the stated age of consummation does follow the traditional theological narrative found in Sahih Bukhari, one of the most authentic Hadith collections. The European court ruled that the woman’s remarks fell outside the limits of acceptable speech, claiming there to be a “distinction between child marriages and paedophilia.” Religious sensibilities took precedence over freedom of speech, setting a dangerous legal precedent four years after the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which twelve people were gunned down at the offices of the satirical magazine. The Hebdo attack followed the Salman Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006. Such incidents posed a harsh challenge to Europe’s democratic core.

Despite their somewhat limited use domestically, Europe’s blasphemy laws may have further-reaching consequences. The mere existence of such legislation in Europe leaves the West open to accusations of double standards and reduces any leverage it may have internationally. One of the most high-profile cases was that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan after being convicted of blasphemy. After drinking from a well predominately used by Muslims, Bibi was told she had contaminated the water. The altercation that followed would lead to accusations that Bibi made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad. Five days after the incident, a local mosque broadcast the allegations, and Bibi was dragged from her home and beaten in the presence of police officers. Despite eventually being acquitted, she was held in protective custody for months after her release due to fears she would be targeted by religious extremists. One of her outspoken supporters and a leading voice against the country’s blasphemy laws, the politician Salman Taseer, was murdered by his own bodyguard in a country where vigilantes often take the law into their own hands.

There is also a history of “legacy” European blasphemy laws emboldening calls for new blasphemy legislation. Before it was abolished, Ireland’s blasphemy law was cited by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), led by Pakistan, in its decade-long campaign at the UN for a global blasphemy law. The OIC borrowed the exact working of Ireland’s law in its call to end the “defamation of religion.” Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, then the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, advised Atheist Ireland that while it was unlikely that the country’s blasphemy law would be enforced, it did highlight that “those countries that continue to have an intimidating anti-blasphemy practice like to quote European countries to unmask Western hypocrisy.”

Blasphemy laws are, as they exist today, at odds with the Enlightenment values upon which modern secular Europe was built. On the whole, European states have existing legislation to protect against incitement to hatred or violence—laws that can pose their own problems. However, blasphemy legislation has more than a symbolic impact; it represents a threat to one of the cornerstones of liberal democracies: freedom of expression. Further afield, it also weakens Europe’s standing when supporting the victims of harsh legislation abroad.

Hannah Wallace

Hannah Wallace is the author of From Darwin to Jihad: The Erosion of Turkey's Secular Education System and is a politics graduate, a proficient German speaker, a researcher on terrorism and insurgency, and a writer for various foreign policy publications.

At the end of 2018, a majority of Ireland’s population voted to remove the country’s blasphemy law from its constitution. The debate around the issue provided a very public reminder that such laws still exist in Europe. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), seventy-one countries have blasphemy …

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