An international human rights panel agreed with an Austrian court’s decision Thursday to fine a right-wing speaker for suggesting that the Muslim prophet Muhammad was a pedophile. This was, they said, a violation of the country’s statute that criminalizes “disparaging religious doctrines” in public.
The unnamed lecturer was first convicted by the Vienna Regional Criminal Court in 2011, after she was documented by an undercover journalist telling a general audience hosted by the Freedom Party that Muhammad “liked to do it with children” and asking aloud, “What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?” After failing to win appeal in the Austrian Supreme Court, the petitioner brought her case before the Council of Europe’s human rights tribunal, the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds that her punishment contravened the council’s article on freedom of expression.
The seven-judge panel admitted her case but turned her down on the merits, deferring to the Austrian courts’ “wide” discretion to “evaluate which statements were likely to disturb the religious peace in their country.” The Austrian law that the speaker was found to have broken stipulates that religious rhetoric must be “likely to arouse justified indignation” in order to be illegal. It is in this respect that the human rights tribunal did not say the Austrian statute outlaws blasphemy, since the statute concerns itself with a statement’s anticipated effect on the public, not the statement’s substance.
But the Austrian courts and the human rights panel contradicted this strict public safety rationale by trying to divine the intent of the speaker and using their interpretation against her. “The Court notes that the domestic courts extensively explained why they considered that the applicant’s statements had been capable of arousing justified indignation, namely that they had not been made in an objective manner aiming at contributing to a debate of public interest, but could only be understood as having been aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not a worthy subject of worship,” the decision reads.
In principle, this observation lends insight into these courts’ perceived role in policing subjective speech—it appears to be expansive.
But there is also a narrow question about the courts’ conclusion: If it is fair to criminalize the act of implying publicly that Muhammad is “not a worthy subject of worship,” is it not equally fair to protect Jesus, Buddha, or any other such person or supreme being in the same way? Atheism holds that any god is unworthy of worship, since atheists, at the very least, do not believe in the existence of gods, and at most claim they don’t exist. Is it then justifiable for any theist to advocate banning public demonstrations of atheism, for the blanket reason that their intent is to claim that each deity of each religion is “not a worthy subject of worship”?
It's not and nor should it be, of course. But blasphemy law by any name has never had a good justification.