When in March 2014 Saudi Arabia passed a decree criminalising atheism and making it equivalent to a terrorist offence, an online wave of Islamic blasphemy and vilification was initiated by Saudi activists as a form of resistance.
Saudi atheists started uploading pictures of shredded Qurans with messages underneath saying “Proud to be atheist”. Hafsa, a 23-year old Saudi woman, posted pictures on her twitter account of herself stepping on a shredded Quran with red high-heeled shoes. In another picture, she is seen stepping on a Quran with her bare feet and toenails painted pink.
Hafsa is not the only Arab woman making feminist statements against Islam. Alia Magda Elmahdy is an Egyptian member of Femen and has stirred various controversies with her actions, some of which included pictures of herself defecating on an ISIS flag and topless protests against the hijab and Islamic patriarchy.
On the other hand, a number of popular authors and activists in Europe have also expressed themselves against Islam in what comes across as an offensive way. In 2002 Michel Houellebecq was taken to court by Muslim organisations for saying that Islam was “stupid” and “dangerous”, but the courts acquitted him of any misdemeanour.
Indeed, the far right, which panders to the uneducated and the disenfranchised with racist discourse against Muslims and immigrants, does not have a monopoly on the vilification of Islam. Vilification cannot be defined objectively and its use and essence is subjective to its conditions, content and intent and there are many different forms and levels of religious vilification.
This is why cutting a straight line in legal terms by banning any form of vilification on religion will naturally not only impact racist discourse, but will impact other sections of society such as the arts. We have experienced this already with incidents and cases which happened under the previous Lawrence Gonzi administration. Jason Azzopardi, who has crusaded against Labour’s anti-censorship reforms, was a Cabinet member under Gonzi’s administration and is now aspiring to become Justice and Home Affairs minister.
In response to the recent desecration of the Quran in the prayer room of Mater Dei Hospital, Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi have stepped up their campaign against these anti-censorship reforms by claiming they give outright permission for such acts to take place. But what happened at Mater Dei has already been described by lawyers as a crime which can be prosecuted by the current legal framework, including the hate crime laws.
Some very important considerations a court of law makes about such a case is the context and the intent. If an artist desecrates and vilifies the Quran as part of his or her art exhibition in an enclosed space used for artistic purposes then there wouldn’t be a problem and no one would be prosecuted; but given the fact that the context of the desecration of the Quran which happened at Mater Dei was an act of vandalism in a public space used for holy worship, the law against hate speech may easily become applicable. There is also the issue of the intent and this would have to be explained by the defendant. The Mater Dei desecration act can lead to a prosecution even with laws protecting public property and the public peace.
Jason Azzopardi betrays an underlying and very dangerous populist message which has to be fought on ideological grounds by those who cherish freedom and democracy.
The Nationalists are supporting an outright ban on the vilification of religion in any case and context. They once proposed that instead of removing the vilification law, a new law should be introduced which excludes artists from the vilification law, but such a proposal is downright stupid and even unconstitutional because rights are universal and cannot be granted selectively.
The Nationalists believe that vilification should be a crime punishable by law because they believe that it is a gravely immoral act, but they claim that the most important reason for such a law is to preserve law and order in society and to prevent the provocation of violence. Now it is also clear that when the Nationalists mention the issue of national security and violent provocations they also allude to Islamic terrorists, itself a scandalously wrong assumption.
The notion that a vilification law is needed for national security defeats its own purpose. You do not need to be a security expert to understand that parading people to court for vilifying Islam will only exacerbate security problems due to the fact that you’re making martyrs out of so called vilifiers, making the vilifying act which was the object of the prosecution even more popular in the process.
The new laws as introduced by Labour do not give such a platform to those who want to vilify religions. Secondly, Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi are not only empirically wrong in their assessment of the consequences of the law or the lack of it, but these are words that actually propagate this kind of fear of Islamic terrorism, which ultimately only serves would-be terrorists who’d relish in dividing us and instigating hate between us. It is in this way that the Nationalist party is stooping so low as to use the Islamic terrorist issue for partisan reasons and those who do so are of course very irresponsible, unaware of what they are actually implying and even dangerous.
By invoking the idea of national security to conserve vilification laws, Simon Busuttil and Jason Azzopardi are directly promoting the idea that we should give up on our rights (rights which may even seem to be frivolous or irrelevant to some) for the sake of our own security – this is exactly what Islamic terrorists want us to do. Such political messages based on fear only give more strength to the aim of terrorism.
As Europe faces an increasing number of terrorist attacks by Islamists fighting a violent jihad against Western civilisation, there are two directions that our democracies can take. We can either move into an advanced capitalist dystopia where the right to private property and security are fully preserved against new restrictions on our freedoms, or we may fight a spiritual war for peaceful coexistence between different religions whilst preserving our most fundamental European rights and our way of living.
I am very optimistic about the future of Europe and I strongly believe that Europe is collectively moving in the latter step, even if for example, Saudi Arabia or other Arab-Muslim countries have occasionally made great pressure on EU institutions to introduce and increase blasphemy laws as was the case after the Danish cartoons were published in 2005.
In 2006, Javier Solana, the EU’s coordinator of foreign policy assured the Saudis that the EU would do its best to prevent any form of vilification of Islam and even prevent any further caricatures of Muhammed to be published. Naturally, Europe, being the continent of freedom, was unmoved by the pressure from the Saudis as just a couple of years later in Sweden, a country which has no blasphemy laws whatsoever, cartoons depicting Muhammed were again published without any legal consequences.
In 2007 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a document outlining its proposal for the abolishment of blasphemy and religious vilification laws across the European continent. In 2008 the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression issued a declaration stating that restrictions on freedom of speech “should be limited in scope to the protection of overriding individual rights and social interests, and should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones”.
As of today, only a minority of European states have existing laws outlawing blasphemy and religious vilification or are actually enforcing them. The UK removed blasphemy laws in 2008, the Netherlands removed its blasphemy laws in 2014 and Norway abolished its blasphemy laws last year after a 10-year process. Iceland removed its blasphemy laws in 2015 in reaction to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Denmark, which Azzopardi has been using as his favourite example of a liberal country with religious blasphemy laws, hasn’t used its blasphemy laws since 1938 despite the fact that Danish cartoonists have vilified Muhammed several times over. These are all facts that were conveniently avoided to mention during a campaign of misinformation and lies in the press and in parliament on Labour’s reform of censorship laws.
Labour in Malta is today an advanced liberal party which takes strong positions on civil liberties based on points of principle without resorting to dangerous populist measures. The concept of law adhered to by Labour is in line with the current and predominant form of European thinking on the right to freedom of speech: the line to free speech ends when the incitement to hatred and violence begins.
We may be disappointed with much that is said and done online on blogs, newspapers and in televised debates, but this is the world we live in and we cannot prosecute and imprison people for their thoughts and beliefs even if they might seem stupid, insulting or offensive to us – if we don’t accept this reality then we do not understand the basic fundamentals of democracy.
Joseph Muscat has said we have to stay vigilant and not resort to racism, but we also have to remain vigilant when it comes to our fights and freedoms. We should not lose our rights due to populist and dangerous dystopian ideas. On blasphemy and religious vilification laws the PN is not only misinformed and incongruous with its own purpose, but it is downright dangerous.
The line is clear and the current legal framework strikes a balance between our freedom and society’s security. As much as we should fight hatred and racism, we should also preserve our rights in a fast-changing globalised civilisation. The insular thinking of the Nationalists is regressive and dangerous.