Considering the systematic repression of minorities and the denial of basic human rights in many Muslim-majority countries, it defies belief that the OIC has been able to dominate the agenda of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council with its insistence that “defamation of religion” should be prohibited under human-rights law. This demand is based on the premise that Muslims suffer systematic repression and discrimination in the West. While there are certainly Muslims who have been subjected to unfair suspicion under the anti-terror measures, it is indisputable that Muslims in the West enjoy far greater freedoms than religious minorities and, indeed, Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. This is all the more remarkable when one takes into account the fact that many Western societies face the threat of terrorism and radicalization from Islamists, many of them homegrown. Yet rarely if ever do Western governments call out the naked and shameless hypocrisy of the OIC: Until recently, the plight of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries has been underreported, and absent from the agenda of human-rights violations at the international level. This book is a highly welcome corrective to this imbalance.
While the “defamation of religion” agenda has been defeated at the U.N. (for now), Shea and Marshall are right to point out that the campaign to limit criticism of Islam under human-rights law is far from over. The OIC has now shifted its focus to existing hate-speech prohibitions in international human-rights law and European criminal codes. In this, it is being aided by numerous Western human-rights experts and politicians, and even by human-rights courts that insist that multicultural societies require the policing of “intolerant” speech.
Which brings me to a minor shortcoming of the book: Shea and Marshall’s treatment of European hate-speech laws. While Muslim organizations frequently invoke these laws to silence debate, they were not adopted at the insistence of Muslims, nor are critics of Islam the only victims of them. Numerous groups claiming to represent Jews, Christians, gays, the disabled, and ethnic minorities routinely invoke such laws, whose protections seem to be the ultimate recognition for groups in an era of identity politics. It is therefore difficult to fault Muslims for the precarious legal protection of controversial speech in Europe (although the coordinated campaigns by Muslim groups to invoke blasphemy and hate-speech laws has certainly increased dramatically the pressure to enforce such laws).
The fact that laws aimed at protecting democracy against totalitarian ideologies have become a tool for repressing political and religious debate should also serve as a warning to those European politicians and intellectuals who argue that the threat to Western freedom from radical Islam requires restrictions on the freedoms of religion and expression of Muslims. One cannot credibly fight a battle for freedom of expression and conscience by denying these freedoms to others. Moreover, once such restrictions are in place they will inevitably be used for other purposes when new political majorities assume power.
Where the threat against free speech from Islamic radicalism in Europe is unique is in the widespread use of intimidation through threats and actual violence and, in a few instances, even killings of those who are critical of Islam — a development well documented by Shea and Marshall. While most of those convicted under hate-speech laws are let off with a fine, the danger of violence has prompted many to abstain from speaking out, or to resort to anonymity. The physical threats and attacks are all the more serious because of their arbitrariness: It is impossible to know when a self-appointed defender of the prophet is sufficiently offended to take matters into his own hands.
This reviewer once insisted that a book chapter he wrote on free speech be accompanied by the (in)famous cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, and no violence ensued. But in September 2011, Sweden’s intelligence service asked an art festival to cancel an appearance by cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had been attacked several times, since his security could not be guaranteed. A few years ago, such a development would have occasioned huge numbers of headlines in Scandinavian media; but the ubiquity of such intimidation has almost become routine, and raises few eyebrows: a chilling indictment of our times.
Silenced is an uncomfortable but essential contribution to a most important debate that many would prefer to sit out. Its sober, balanced, and detailed account of the threat from Islamic blasphemy laws — whether in Pakistan, at the U.N., or in Europe — lucidly demonstrates that we do so at our own peril.
– Mr. Mchangama is director of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS and external lecturer in international human-rights law at the University of Copenhagen.