Politics & Policy

Hate-Speech Laws Aren’t the Answer to Islamic Extremism—They’re Part of the Problem

A copy of Charlie Hebdo raised at a vigil in Nantes, France. (Georges Gobet/Getty)
Enforcing blasphemy codes against their citizens won’t protect European countries from violence.

What lesson will Europe draw from the Charlie Hebdo massacre? Will it get serious about ending Muslim extremism within its borders, or will it try even harder to curb offensive political cartoons and speech about Islam? Up to this point, Europe has responded to Islamist violence in retaliation against ridicule, and even against sober critique of Islam, by taking the latter course.

In 2008, the EU mandated religious hate-speech laws, with European officials indignantly declaring that there is “no right to religious insult.” More revealingly, one official European commission delicately explained that this measure was taken to “preserve social peace and public order” in light of the “increasing sensitivities” of “certain individuals” who “have reacted violently to criticism of their religion.”

Europe was frightened and wanted to cool down its angry Muslim populations and appease the censorship lobby that claims to represent them in the 56-member-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Since 2004, it had seen the assassination of Theo van Gogh in an Amsterdam street for his and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film on abuses against Muslim women; worldwide Muslim riots and economic boycotts over an obscure Danish newspaper’s caricatures of the Islamic prophet Mohammed; and yet more rioting and murders after Pope Benedict presented a paper to an academic audience at Regensburg University that questioned Islam’s position on reason. The subjective hate-speech laws were intended to placate those — including Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1989 issued a fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie — who demand that Europe police its own citizens for conformity to Islamic blasphemy codes. European leaders insisted that this could be accomplished while somehow still upholding Western principles of free speech.  

These hate-speech laws have failed in both aims. Islamist extremism continues to grow in Europe, while speech critical of Islam is undertaken at ever greater personal risk, including risk of criminal prosecution. Some are so intimidated that they remain silent even when it is their duty to speak up. The gang rapes of 1,400 British girls in Rotherham by men of Pakistani origin went unreported for 16 years reportedly because officials were reluctant to say something critical of Muslims, who were the perpetrators in  that case.

Today, the Charlie Hebdo staff  is being mourned as “courageous chroniclers” by President Hollande. But  yesterday, it was the French state, not extremists, who  sought to “avenge the prophet,” through hate-speech charges against the magazine and its editor for other irreverent Mohammad cartoons. Those charges were lodged in 2006–07 at the urging of then-president Jacques Chirac, who recommended the services of his personal lawyer to the Muslim complainants. Ultimately that case failed, but, as one former defendant pointed out, the trial itself is the ordeal. By contrast, national icon Brigitte Bardot, now an animal-rights activist,  has been convicted five times for criticizing Muslim halal slaughter practices for not using stunning.

In the U.K., a British public-television broadcast was accused of “hate speech” and was subject to a police investigation for reporting on radical Muslim preachers. Also in Britain, a congregation of an old Christian church, now surrounded by a new Muslim neighborhood, was convicted on a public-order offense for singing hymns on Sunday morning; the conviction was overturned late on appeal with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

In Finland, Helsinki city-council member Jussi Halla-aho was convicted for blog entries disparaging marriage practices of Islam’s prophet, which he attributed to Muslims more generally. In Austria, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted of defaming the prophet after giving a briefing based on her experiences working in Iran and Libya.

In the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, novelists, editors, legislators, philosophers, filmmakers, and cartoonists have been put through criminal investigations and trials and occasionally convicted for anti-Islamic speech. When it comes to Islam, women’s rights, child marriages, punishments for homosexuality, animal cruelty, immigration limits, and the legitimacy of violence are all topics that have given offense and triggered hate-speech prosecutions in Western Europe.#page#

In Italy, Muslims and Catholics have sued and counter-sued each other over religious hate speech. Rather than promoting social harmony as EU bureaucrats had hoped, European religious hate-speech laws — like Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — seem to fan sentiments of offense. Most dangerously, they give validity to expectations that speech disrespectful of Islamic symbols, practices, and beliefs ought to be punished, and some, like the gunmen in Paris, take it upon themselves to carry this out.

Their victims have not been limited to cartoonists making fun of Islam’s prophet. A roster of liberal European Muslims, who aim to reconcile Islam with Western pluralism, has been threatened with death by Muslim fanatics. My Hudson Institute colleague Naser Khader was Denmark’s first Muslim parliamentarian and the founder of the Democratic Muslims Network, a group committed to free expression. For these and other pro-democracy efforts, he was the target of a disrupted bomb plot, captured on surveillance tape, by Ahmed Akkari, a principal agitator in the Danish-cartoon crisis and a consultant on Islam for the Danish government. Others who have received death threats include Ekin Deligoz, Germany’s first Muslim parliamentarian; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a Dutch parliamentarian; Souad Sbai, an Italian parliamentarian; Nyamko Sabuni, a minister of integration and gender equality in Sweden, and many others.

British comedian Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) warned during a national debate on the subject in the U.K. that hate-speech laws merely produce “a veneer of tolerance concealing a snakepit of unaired and unchallenged views.” Perhaps the hate-speech bans are also to blame for the growing violent backlash against Muslims in Europe.

Europe, indeed the world, faces a growing threat from Islamist extremism, and its fears of further Islamist violence are not illegitimate. But to prevail, instead of shutting down discussion and examination of Islam with hate-speech bans, the West must encourage it — and provide robust physical and legal protections to ensure it can be free.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson Europe seems not to want to learn.

— Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide.

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