Free Speech as Blasphemy: Crackdown in Europe

Finnish Minister Paivi Rasanen addresses reporters during a press conference in Athens, Greece, in 2012. (John Kolesidis/Reuters)

Europe’s ‘hate-speech laws’ have taken the core principles of ‘blasphemy laws’ and dressed them up in a watered-down Western packaging.

Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental American values. This value was brought all the more sharply into focus recently when my fellow expat, Prince Harry, quite royally offended his host nation by calling the First Amendment “bonkers” on the California-based Armchair Experts podcast. Even as a Brit, I could still detect the irony of the blood descendent of King George III complaining about constitutional rights in the land of the free.

But Prince Harry’s ability to speak freely about his beliefs might not have fared so well in other countries that were formerly under the Crown. Take Pakistan. Last week, advocates supported by human-rights group ADF International celebrated a victory for free speech at the High Court in Lahore, Pakistan. A couple was accused of sending an offensive message about the Prophet Mohammed and the Qur’an in English in 2014. Never mind that they don’t speak English. Never mind that the wife’s phone had been missing for a full month before the inflammatory text was sent. Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar are Catholic, illiterate, and entirely innocent. The couple, parents of four, were sentenced to death in 2014. In a landmark ruling, the High Court has now thrown out the case. The SIM card from the phone in question had not been sent for a forensic test, and therefore was deemed inadmissible as evidence, undermining the case of the prosecution.

The victory is good news for the family, who have already lost years together as the parents languished in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. But it won’t change the law.

The case calls attention to the wider problem across the region. Hundreds wait on death row on blasphemy charges. The Pakistani law forbids anyone from insulting religious beliefs. In practice, this can be something as trivial as liking a Facebook post. Courts allow vague allegations to go unchallenged, rendering intent irrelevant. The devil lies in the detailed interpretation of the offended party. Feel insulted? Report the perpetrator. The criminalization of speech and discussion — even critique of religion or ideology — is contrary to international human-rights treaties and undermines any perception of a fair democracy.

For a long time, the West has pointed its finger at the Middle East for the prevalence of blasphemy law and its use against religious minorities. On April 29, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Pakistani authorities to release Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar immediately and unconditionally and to overturn their death sentence.” It also urged Pakistan to “effectively banish the use of blasphemy laws.” The efforts to restore freedom are good and right. But as every schoolchild knows, with every long finger of accusation that extends, three point back at the accuser.

To our shame, Pakistan actually inherited this draconian law directly from the colonial Brits. We might think we’ve shaken off those undemocratic ways. Indeed, Scotland, one of the four nations within the United Kingdom, formally repealed its archaic blasphemy law earlier this year. But European speech is not quite so free as one might think.

Indeed, in a deft slight-of-hand, Scotland not only repealed its blasphemy law, but exchanged it for a new law which clamps down on speech that could be interpreted as offensive. It’s not the church — or God — being protected anymore, but the “church of woke.” Those who express orthodox views on marriage or gender could potentially find themselves facing a sentence of up to seven years.

Or travel east over the North Sea to Nordic Finland. Päivi Räsänen — a grandmother, MP and former minister of the interior — is facing criminal prosecution over social-media comments. She didn’t criticize Islam, but she did challenge her own church — she asked them why they had decided to sponsor the Helsinki Pride Parade in 2019. It was enough to trigger a police investigation. Räsänen holds the biblical view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and said so in a pamphlet written for Christians in 2004, and as part of a radio interview in 2019. She is being prosecuted on three charges of “ethnic agitation” under a law that was passed after her pamphlet was published.

Europe’s “hate-speech laws” have taken the core principles of “blasphemy laws” and dressed them up in a watered-down Western packaging. Thoughts are now branded “unspeakable,” not for discussing deities, but dogma — even if that dogma is still widely held. The pope has been clear on his views on marriage. The Queen of England herself is head of a church that confesses the same view. Significant portions of European populations join them, amounting to one in five Brits, and one in four Fins. These are very significant minorities — but international legal standards on free speech protect their right to express their views, even if they amounted to fewer.

Räsänen’s experience won’t be the same as those prosecuted in South Asia. She certainly won’t languish on death row. Problems in Pakistan are undoubtedly more severe. But swapping out one type of unchallengeable “groupthink” for another, even with less jail time, makes a mockery of 21st-century democracy. At its core, silencing dialogue under “blasphemy” or “hate speech” laws is simply two sides of one authoritarian coin.

A letter penned in May by leading academics from Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and other top universities has called on U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to consider the actions of the Finnish prosecutor general to amount to “gross human rights violations” against Päivi Räsänen, and impose economic sanctions on the individual. No reasonable balance of the goods of public order, civil equality, and religious liberty can ever support this suppression of the right to believe and express one’s beliefs,” the letter reads. It is worded strongly. But it does cause one to reflect on the direction Europe is taking that these words, normally reserved for countries like Pakistan, would apply.

As a European watching on, perhaps it’s time to pen my own letter to U.S. leaders. Dear “land of the free” — take heed of your peers. The First Amendment is far from “bonkers.” Free speech stays free only if it’s free for everyone — even for those with whom you disagree.

Lois McLatchie — Lois McLatchie writes for Alliance Defending Freedom UK and can be found on Twitter at @LoisMcLatch.

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