OF ALL the sounds in the world there is none so small and sorrowful as the dying of free speech.
Free speech is typically loud and clamorous and more often wrong than it is right. It is often both unpleasant and unhelpful and tested far more by the ignorant than the wise.
And yet it is the most vital tool any society can hold, because it is the only thing that can fix that society when it his heading in the wrong direction. Long before the Nazis waged war on humanity they waged war on free speech. Before they burned bodies they burned books.
That apex of evil was eventually brought down by the sacrifice of tens of millions of lives. But what happens when freedom of expression dies not in a town square execution but by one of a thousand cuts? What happens when it goes out with a whimper instead of a bang?
That chilling question was quietly answered last week, when the European Court of Human Rights upheld the conviction of a woman for the crime of arguing that the Prophet Muhammad — may peace and blessings be upon him! — was technically a paedophile.
The woman had made the comments in late 2009 at a seminar at the so-called “Education Institute” run by the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party entitled “Basic information on Islam”. Only about 30 people were present but one of them was an undercover journalist, who later asked the police to investigate.
The woman, identified only as ES, was recounting to the seminar a telephone conversation she had with her less anti-Muslim sister about Muhammad’s well-known late marriage to a young girl called Aisha. “A 56-year-old and a six-year-old? What do you call that?” ES said she asked her sister. “Give me an example? What do we call it, if it is not paedophilia?”
It is important to note here that a key historical source suggests Aisha was just six years old when she was betrothed to the Prophet and just nine when the marriage was consummated. Later scholars have disputed this and said Aisha would have been in her teens when they first had sex — something that would not have been at all uncommon among many cultures in the Middle Ages.
But whichever version is true doesn’t matter. Whether the woman was right doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether or not she has the right to say it. And according to the European Court of Human Rights she did not.
“The applicant’s statements had been capable of arousing justified indignation given that they had not been made in an objective manner aimed at contributing to a debate of public interest, but could only have been understood as aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not a worthy subject of worship,” the court found.
“Presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of the followers of that religion could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance, which was one of the bases of a democratic society.”
The punishment was either a 480 euro fine or 60 days jail and the court upheld it. The arbiters of European democracy decreed that people should be jailed if they offend the followers of a religion or insult a religious figure who has been dead for more than a thousand years.
If that is what they call democracy then God knows what they think a dictatorship is.
Yet this stake through the heart of the most fundamental freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of debate went almost entirely unnoticed. It was only when a stunned colleague passed on to me an article in The Atlantic magazine about it that my pupils dilated and my pants needed changing.
And here, of course, must come the tiresome disclaimer.
As is obvious to anyone who knows me or my work, I am far from anti-Muslim. Almost half of my overseas trips have been to Muslim countries, I have had dear friends who are Muslim and indeed I once dated a very lovely Muslim woman.
And I have constantly publicly defended Muslims from the endless accusations that they are all extremists or terrorists waiting to happen. Given there are almost two billion of them, there wouldn’t be much of the world left if they were.
I’m also going to give our little friend in the Austrian hard right a little free history lesson. If she really wants to stay true to the cause of Germanic and Austro-Hungarian nationalism she should be a bit nicer to the adherents of Allah.
After all, when it came to the Great War that set the 20th century on the path to becoming history’s bloodiest it was Kaiser Wilhelm II himself who declared himself a friend to the Muslim world and forced a reluctant Ottoman Empire to join Germany’s cause in World War I — not because the Ottomans liked Germany that much but because its very existence was threatened by Tsarist Russia.
This fatalistic declaration of loyalty not only led to the loss of tens of thousands of Muslim lives but thousands of Australian lives at a small beach called Gallipoli. And it is Muslims who have not just allowed but encouraged countless thousands of Australian pilgrims to visit the site of that invasion into their homeland to commemorate and consecrate that sacred land.
In other words Muslims have sacrificed a hell of a lot for ES’s country just as they have for ours.
This fight is not against Islam or any other religion. It is a fight only for the right to think, to express those thoughts and somehow through the contest of ideas and the battle of convictions to hammer out a better world. It is a fight for the very right to what it means to be human.
What the ironically named European Court of Human Rights has done is choke that human right. And it is an assault on all of us, not least of all Muslims themselves.
The Austrian Freedom Party itself came perilously close to winning the last presidential election in that country. This will only add more ammunition to its armoury.
And while this decision might have slipped by unnoticed in Australia, anti-Islam groups around the globe are already citing it as a new blasphemy law that has crept into the West by stealth. And they are correct.
This will only further stoke anti-Muslim sentiment even though it is precisely this kind of fundamentalism that so many Muslims fleeing to the West are trying to escape. Such is the price of idiocy and such is the penalty when free speech is crushed.
Yet again the censorious and proscriptive impulses of the so-called progressive left have only served to fuel the right. And in an age of turbocharged political volatility, where extremism and populism combine like acids and bases to throw up evermore rogue leaders and governments in once-stable liberal democracies, what freedoms will be left for any of us to criticise the idiots in charge if courts are handing out jail terms for hurt feelings?
Maybe it is just one cut in a thousand or maybe it is the thousandth cut. But it is a cut should freeze the blood.