A Bruges, Belgium criminal court convicted a man for shredding a Koran on March 6, 2013. The court imposed a four-month prison sentence and a 600 euro fine upon him. He now additionally faces a revocation of a previous suspension of an 18-month prison sentence for having set a fire in a wood. This case highlights yet again the greater restrictions on speech in free societies outside of the United States and how these restrictions can limit open debate about Islam.
The man, identified in print only as Arne S., attended a demonstration on June 8, 2012, in Ostend, Belgium, before retiring to a café. There Arne exchanged words with a dozen Muslims and tore apart a Koran before them. As described in a Belgian press account, Arne’s counsel at trial claimed that the Muslims had thrown the “sacred book” at Arne, striking him in the head. Arne’s lawyer, Olivier Ryde, thus claimed that no infraction of Belgium’s law on hate speech had occurred. No reports of assault charges against the Muslims have appeared.
Arne’s case demonstrates that Belgium, like many other European countries, has laws against what is commonly called “hate speech.” In particular, Article 22 of the Belgian Law of May 10, 2007, Aiming to Struggle Against Certain Forms of Discrimination, prohibits incitement of hatred, discrimination, violence, and/or segregation against persons of various protected classes in public settings defined by Article 444 of the Belgian Penal Code. Article 3 of the May 10, 2007, laws defines these protected classes
based upon age, sexual orientation, civil state, birth, fortune, religious or philosophical conviction, political conviction, trade union views, language, actual or future state of health, handicap, physical or genetic characteristic, or social origin.
Cheradenine Zakalwe of the website Islam versus Europe has asked in relation to Arne, “Is Sharia already in force in Europe?” Yet Arne is not the first individual in Europe convicted of destroying a “sacred book,” nor is the Koran the only book in Europe that qualifies for this designation. Poland’s supreme court ruled on October 29, 2012 that a lower court was wrong to exonerate the Polish heavy metal musician Adam Darski on blasphemy charges for having ripped apart a Bible as a “book of lies” during a September 2007 concert.
In Darski’s case, though, the European Union’s (EU) executive body, the European Commission (EC), came to Darski’s defense. An EC statement on October 31, 2012 expressed the traditional justification for free speech that “[t]his right protects not only information or ideas that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also those that offend, shock or disturb.” It remains to be seen whether the EC will make the same defense à la Voltaire for Arne’s anti-Islam sentiments.
Controversies about blasphemy aside, Belgium’s equation of “religious” and other “convictions” with physical characteristics such as a person’s place of “birth” is troubling. Such a conception of “hate speech” encompasses not just the debatable proposition of proscribing animus expressed against individuals, but also the prohibition of at least certain forms of opposition to ideas like Islam. In effect, an individual’s identification with an idea like Islam helps shield this belief from attack in a kind of ideological umbrella.
The cases of Arne, Darski, and others continue to show that criticism and/or condemnation of Islam can be legally perilous in European societies traditionally restrictive of free speech out of deference to group sensibilities and social harmony. Now that Muslim communities have established themselves in an often politically correct modern Europe, rejection of Islam is no longer a merely academic matter involving distant peoples. Precisely the proximity of Islam to Europe, however, demands unfettered critical evaluation of this faith now more than ever. Modern expansive notions of “hate speech” and traditional concepts of blasphemy, now applied not just to Europe’s historically dominant Christian faith but also to an increasingly prominent Islam, can only hinder this necessary inquiry into Islam.
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