Freedom of speech has always existed within boundaries of civility and that should never change -
Last week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the civil liberties of an Austrian woman found guilty of “disparaging religious doctrines” after she insulted the Prophet Mohammed had not been violated. Predictably, scores of commentators have argued that this was a failing of the ECHR and yet another in a long line of attacks upon freedom of expression. But is that really the case?
There are several points to be raised here. Firstly, the ECHR did nothing more than uphold the existing Austrian verdict, reached in 2011, which ordered her to pay a Dh2,000 fine. Declaring that the judgment did not contravene the ECHR’s own definition of freedom of speech merely underscores the fact that the Austrian courts were operating within the boundaries of national law.
Had the Austrian court ruled in favour of the plaintiff, the ECHR would equally not have gone against it. In fact, the ECHR has on several occasions ruled that religious freedom can be curtailed if its member nations decide as much. A number of high-profile cases, in which Muslim women went to court to protest being discriminated against by not being allowed to wear the hijab either at school or work, have failed. The ECHR is many things, but a perennial bastion of legal protection for Muslim sensibilities it is not.
The Austrian legal system is not terribly favourable to Islam anyway, particularly when one takes into account the tone of contemporary politics in the country. The far-right chancellor Sebastian Kurz was elected on a platform of opposition to what he calls “political Islam” and, in December, he formed a coalition government with the country’s anti-Muslim Freedom Party.