The Place of Freedom of Expression in Europe Today -  The Muslim ‘Threat’?  LaTuff Cartoons
Europe's Double Standards

The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The enunciation of this right and other fundamental human rights, collectively form the European human rights framework that governs Europe’s political discourse. In large parts of the world, the very concept of human rights has no currency whatsoever and millions of people suffer daily abuses of their fundamental human rights. 


Europe, in contrast, holds itself up as a shining beacon of freedom, liberty and equality. Certainly, Europeans enjoy enviable rights that people in other parts of the world dream of and struggle for daily. As Europeans we should rightly be proud of and cherish living in a part of the world where a culture of human rights clearly permeates our societies. In recent years, however, we are increasingly told that our enjoyment of these rights is under attack from our Muslim neighbours and fellow citizens. The attacks in Paris in January of this year and those in Copenhagen last month are held up as evidence of a war waged by Muslims in Europe on fundamental European rights and values. 

The first point that should be made is to condemn, in the strongest of terms, the heinous and wholly abhorrent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. These attacks represent a clear and obvious attack on the right to freedom of expression. The second point and equally important point to make, but is too often ignored, is that they were carried out by individuals who while nominally Muslims, demonstrated a flagrant disregard for their religion’s fundamental values. Those individuals who carried out the attacks referenced their Muslim faith as providing them with a justification and a theological approval of their methods. It should be made absolutely clear, in no uncertain terms, that their actions were un-Islamic and represented a grave perversion of fundamental Islamic precepts. One need not be an Islamic scholar to see this! Most Muslims, striving to live a life worthy of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) recognise that such attacks represent an assault on Islam. 

In responding to provocation in general, however, it is too often the case that some Muslims, in seeking to defend and protect the honour of the Prophet (pbuh) in the face of attack and derision, actually end up dishonouring him through their words and actions. In this sense their actions are counter-productive and arguably cause more damage to their religion than the original provocation itself. The Prophet’s (pbuh) life is replete with examples of when he and the message he propagated was ridiculed and attacked. For example, on a visit to the city of Taif, the Prophet (pbuh) endured voracious verbal and indeed physical attacks. His response? He refused to exact revenge upon his attackers and instead prayed earnestly that future generations would not be filled with so much hatred. This dignified response on the part of the Prophet (pbuh) is also seen in his treatment of an old woman who subjected him to daily verbal abuse and displayed her displeasure of him through the regular dumping of rubbish at his door. When on one day the Prophet (pbuh) did not find rubbish at his door, his concern for this woman led him to enquire after her health. Indeed, this compassionate and dignified response in the face of daily attacks and provocation is what the Qur’an calls for; ‘Endure what they say, and present them with the face of a beautiful dignity.’ (73:10). It is the duty of all Muslims to prevent the extremists, Muslim and non-Muslim, to define Islam and pervert its teachings. By doing so, they too must be conscious that their own words and methods do not do a disservice to their very noble mission. 

The third point to make is something that all Europeans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, would do well to remember. Firstly, while the right of freedom of expression owes much to the Enlightenment, just as Christians seek to rediscover the Christian dimension to Europe’s culture of human rights, the Muslim contribution should also not be forgotten. It is all too easy for Europeans, in their zealous affirmation of their Enlightenment values, to forget the period preceding the Enlightenment. This period in Europe’s history is referred to as the Dark Ages because it was a time in which the fundamental values extolled today were absent. This was a period rife with attacks on freedom of expression perpetrated by Europeans on Europeans. In contrast, Muslim Spain, or Al Andalus as it was known under Muslim rule, fostered a culture of intellectual and philosophical inquiry that led to great advancements in human knowledge. While the rest of Europe engaged in religious persecution, Christians and Jews in Al Andalus were respected and tolerated as ‘People of the Book’. It is all too easy to forget this; to ignore not just how the history of freedom of speech and toleration of the other in Europe was influenced by the continent’s Muslim population, but also how the concept has fundamentally Islamic theological underpinnings.

In summation, it should be understood that those ‘Muslims’ who carry out terrorist attacks, such as those in Paris and in Copenhagen, disregard and pervert fundamental Islamic teachings. Such actions have no place in Islam and most Muslims condemn such attacks, subscribing to Islam, a religion of peace and tolerance. Muslims are not at war with Europe’s culture of human rights and do not seek to curtail or destroy the right to freedom of expression. Most Muslims in Europe support Europe’s culture of human rights and cherish their ability to live in a part of the world where human rights form a fundamental part of the political discourse governing European societies; something that many of their Muslim brothers and sisters in other parts of the world unfortunately do not enjoy. European Muslims should be reassured that the embrace of freedom of expression is not an act which goes against their faith but rather one that is in harmony and wholly consistent with Islam’s history of tolerance. Overcoming the attacks perpetrated by ‘Muslim’ extremists requires all Europeans, Muslim and non-Muslim, to stand together to defend the rights they all cherish. Indeed, it is incumbent upon all Europeans to stand together to challenge the real enemies of freedom of expression. 

It is a sad reality that some European governments, who are meant to represent one of the guarantors of human rights so readily and with increasing frequency, curtail the enjoyment of human rights. We are all aware of how legislation enacted under the guise of anti-terrorism has resulted in the curtailment of an increasing number of our freedoms. In the UK, the government repeatedly makes clear its desire to repeal the Human Rights Act which enshrines much of the European human rights regime in domestic British law. In Hungary, the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, seems intent on dragging his country back to the days of Soviet tyranny with his increasing attacks on fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of speech. It was sadly ironic to watch him march in Paris to defend freedom of speech while his own record reveals a man resolutely opposed to the exercise of this right in Hungary. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris many European governments including Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK pledged to do more to restrict the expression of certain views on the internet. Of course, freedom of speech should not and cannot be abused to allow for incitement to hatred or violence but we should also be conscious that our own governments, whose record in defending our fundamental rights is decidedly patchy, continue along a path of restriction and curtailment. These proposals need serious and thorough consideration. 

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It is absolutely the case that some European governments, in dealing with the right to freedom of speech, simultaneously draw its parameters at home in such a way as to meet political expediency, and abroad indulge in support of regimes that are so fundamentally opposed to the very concept of human rights. At home and abroad, their actions represent the weakening of the universal application of freedom of expression and create a biased and twisted notion of freedom of expression that is wholly unfair and fundamentally weakens the very purpose and notion of the right. It is these governments and other European elites who are the real enemies of freedom of expression!

As if all of this was not bad enough, it is increasingly clear that there double standards exist in the enjoyment of freedom of expression in Europe today. The actions of certain European governments, some sections of the media and the findings of some court judgements all point to the existence of double standards and there innumerable examples that demonstrate this. For example, in France, the publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was justified as an expression of freedom of  speech; however, the French comedian Dieudonne’s comments in the aftermath of the attacks resulted in the police investigating him for apparently supporting terrorism. In 2008 Charlie Hebdo sacked the French cartoonist Maurice Sinet for apparently making an anti-Semitic comment, while their publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was simply an act of freedom of expression. In 2005 the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published now infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) but had previously refused to publish cartoons mocking Jesus because they would provoke an outcry. In 2005 a French court banned a clothing advertisement based on Jesus and the Last Supper because the display was ‘a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs’, according to the judge. In 1994 the French national newspaper, Le quotidien de Paris, published an article that criticised the Pope and stated that the Catholic Church’s doctrine gave legitimacy to the Holocaust. The Catholic Church won a court injunction to prevent its publication. In contrast, when attacks are made on the character and doctrine of Islam, the right to do so is defended an upheld as an act of freedom of expression. Surely, however, if the right to freedom of expression includes the right to insult Islam then this should also be extended to other religions? Apparently, this is not the case. In Europe today it is a sad reality that to criticise Jews, in particular, is condemned as anti-Semitism while to criticise Muslims is called freedom of expression. 

What is urgently needed is for all Europeans to stand together to reject a politicised version of freedom of expression. The parameters of this fundamental human right cannot be subject to the whims of political expediency. We need to challenge the double standards and the perverse nature of freedom of expression as it is articulated by the governments of too many European states. Too  many European governments think it permissible to trumpet  the rhetoric of human rights, at home and abroad, while subjecting the right to service their own partisan ideological objectives.

That the right of freedom of expression is under threat is obvious. This threat does not come from Europe’s Muslims, however, but rather from the continent’s elites. It is Europe’s elites who in pandering to narrow sectional interests and ideologies have created the travesty that is the nature of freedom of speech in Europe today. Freedom of speech in Europe is marked by double standards with its universal nature being constantly diluted. 

The only way for Europeans to stop this unfortunate reality is to stand together, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, united in a common desire to uphold Europe’s culture of human rights! To once and for all recognise that the enemy is not each other, but the elites who rule over us!