It’s been a tough year for freedom of expression in Europe.
On November 2, 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was butchered in an Amsterdam street by Mohammed Bouyeri, a radical Muslim enraged over Submission, van Gogh’s blunt film about women’s subjugation under Islam. For many Europeans, the murder of one of the Netherlands’ most outspoken public figures underscored the importance of protecting freedom of expression. (“Long live the Netherlands, long live free speech!” read one anonymous note placed amid the thousands of flowers and memorial tributes at the scene of the crime.) Many members of Europe’s fast-growing Muslim communities, however””along with more than a few non-Muslims eager to keep the peace in an increasingly anxious and divided continent””draw a very different lesson: the need to curb freedom of expression out of respect for Muslim sensitivities.
The latter view was expressed succinctly by Copenhagen imam Ahmed Abu Laban, who charged that Submission had “crossed the limits of freedom of speech” and demanded “an open debate on these limits.” Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain agreed. “Is freedom of expression without bounds?” he asked. “Muslims are not alone in saying “˜No’ and in calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs.”
These voices have not gone unheard. In the year since van Gogh’s murder, the “limits” and “safeguards” called for by Laban and Sacranie have begun to be put in place. A brief overview:
“¢ Many art curators””a breed that normally revels in provocation””have decided that provoking Muslims is verboten. In January, the World Culture Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, took down a painting, ScÃ¨ne d’amour, described by its artist, Louzla Darabi, as a “response to Muslim hypocrisy about sexuality, above all women’s sexuality”; in October, London’s Tate Gallery removed John Latham’s God Is Great, a work that incorporated copies of the Bible and the Koran. (Latham accused the gallery of cowardice.)
“¢ Judges have done their part. In May, ruling on a petition by the Muslim Union of Italy, a magistrate in the northern Italian city of Bergamo ordered writer Oriana Fallaci to stand trial for vilifying Islam in her book The Force of Reason. (She had previously been acquitted on a similar offense in France.) In September, the European Court of Human Rights affirmed a Turkish court’s conviction of a publisher for issuing a novel, Abdullah Riza ErgÃ¼ven’s Yasak TÃ¼mceler, that purportedly “insulted the Prophet and religion.”
“¢ Legislatures have taken action. In April, after virtually no public discussion, Norway’s Parliament passed a law that punishes offensive remarks about any religion with up to three years’ imprisonment””and places the burden of proof on the accused. Three months later, Britain’s House of Commons approved a bill that would criminalize “words or behavior” that might “stir up racial or religious hatred.” (On October 25, the bill’s most restrictive provisions were rejected by the House of Lords””an ironic example of a non-democratically elected body standing up for democracy by rebuking a democratically elected body.)
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