by David Quinn
I wonder what the main campaigners against the blasphemy provision of our Constitution think of a new ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which found that is it was permissible for Austria to prosecute someone for ‘disparaging religious doctrine’, in this case by insulting the Prophet Mohammed? What does Justice Minster Charlie Flanagan think? Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland? Senator Ivana Bacik?
The blasphemy referendum takes place today, of course, and we are being made to think once more that we are laggards when it comes to these matters. The blasphemy provision must be removed from our Constitution so that we can be even shinier and more modern than before. But it turns out we are not such laggards after all, as the ECtHR judgment makes clear.
The case before the ECtHR was called E.S. vs Austria. E.S. was a member of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party which campaigns against high immigration, especially from Muslim countries.
Addressing a meeting, Ms E.S. described Mohammed as “a warlord, he had many women, to put it like this, and liked to do it with children”. (She was referring here to one of Mohammed’s wives who was six when he married her and about nine when the marriage was consummated).
Ms E.S. was reported to the Austrian authorities by a number of journalists (note: journalists!), who were present at the meeting for what she had said.
To cut a long story short, Ms E.S. was accused essentially of harming public order, and specifically of ‘disparaging religious doctrine’. This is very close to being accused of blasphemy. She was found guilty, fined almost €500 and made to pay costs, which would have been far higher than the fine.
She appealed to the ECtHR on the grounds that her freedom of expression rights under Article 10 of the European Court of Human Rights had been violated. The court has now ruled that they were not because domestic courts had “carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the rights of others to have their religious feelings protected, and to have religious peace preserved in Austrian society.”
So, there it is. Now, to repeat our question at the top, what do campaigners against the blasphemy provision, including Charlie Flanagan, think of this? While Ms E.S. was not accused of blasphemy per se, she was found guilty of insulting religion. Were the Austrians right to prosecute her? Were the Austrian courts right to find her guilty? Was the European Court of Human Rights correct to say her Article 10 freedom of expression rights were not violated?
Surely they would have to answer ‘no’ to all these questions in order to maintain the coherence of their argument against the blasphemy provision? But the fact that the ECtHR has ruled that her freedom of expression rights were not violated would seem to knock out one of the main arguments the Government has used against the blasphemy provision, namely that it is radically out of step with modern times and modern laws.