Baroness Ashton – steering EU towards blasphemy laws?

19 October 2012

The right not to be offended has no place in a democracy. Nor do blasphemy laws.


In the aftermath of the demonstrations, riots, and killings in Islamic countries following the publication of the on-line video-clip portraying Muhammad as a violent, lascivious, cruel, and somewhat stupid individual – inflamed by the Islamists who promoted the video themselves – the EU has decided to step into the fray.

This was ineptly done in the form of a Joint Statement at the end of September 2012, signed by Catherine Ashton, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the General Secretaries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League, and the Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union.

This document is a call for "peace and tolerance" and simultaneously succeeds in recognising freedom of speech, while at the same time distancing itself from it. Furthermore, we learn that the signatories have a "… profound respect for all religions” and “… the importance of respecting all prophets no matter which religion they belong to”.

Questions need to be asked about the decision by the EU's diplomatic service to associate with organisations such as the OIC and the Arab League, which for decades have curtailed freedom of expression, along with many other human rights. At the UN, for example, the OIC has been pushing to criminalise criticism of all religions and demanded "respect" for all religions and prophets since 1999.

That the undemocratic and authoritarian countries of the OIC and the Arab League call for restrictions on the fundamental rights of all is perhaps not surprising. However, that the democratic EU decides to sign a statement that distances itself from the very rights underpinning EU democracies is distasteful. The fact that this is done together with states that have, for a very long time, oppressed the rights (religious and other) of their own people is quite disgraceful.

No objective observer can reasonably believe statements such as: "… We share a profound respect for all religions. We are united in our belief in the fundamental importance of religious freedom and tolerance. We condemn any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence …", when they originate from the countries of the OIC and the Arab League.

On the contrary, these countries' regimes have more on their consciences than most others when it comes to abuse of religious rights and freedoms.

The reason as to why the EU (through its newly-formed European External Action Service) engages in such embarrassing actions with such organisations, is of course explained by the outbreak of violence around the Islamic world that we have seen during the past month. There are two different motivations for this course of action.

One is that the timidity and appeasement shown in the face of extremist violence directed against various writers, artists or just ordinary citizens, really is because some leading politicians, journalists, and scholars actually believe that appeasement works. From the Rushdie affair onwards, Europe has had its fair share of these apologists who, flanked by burning embassies and murdered artists, appeal to the people of Europe not to humiliate and mock Muslims or their faith.

If we only stop writing certain books, painting pictures, or sketching certain drawings – so the argument goes – the conflict will end. In short, if we impose restrictions on our freedoms (cornerstones of our societies) things will calm down.

It seems futile to remind these individuals that this is not working and that appeasement stubbornly continues to breed more violence and more threats of violence.

There is also a more cynical – second – motivation. In this case you don’t think or believe that what you say actually has any real meaning or that a declaration by the EU, OIC, Arab League and the AU would stop violence. Here, it's more about maintaining good relations with certain countries and trying to reassure them that whatever is said and done by some citizens, relations will continue and this of course includes business relations.

At least it is a tactic that has a certain logic. On closer examination, however, it is just as bad.

The tragedy is that statements such as this joint appeal not only fail to limit violence, but also exacerbate the difficulties in promoting free speech and the strengthening of various freedoms and liberties that must be the basis of all truly democratic societies.

The right not to be offended has no place in a democracy. Nor do blasphemy laws.

This article was originally published here.