Free Speech vs Religious Freedom: Defaming Prophet Muhammad Not Free Expression, ECHR Rules

Written by | Monday, October 29th, 2018

Calling Prophet Muhammad a pedophile is not covered by free speech, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled last week. ECHR ruled against an Austrian woman who said that she was contributing to a public debate. The court found that insulting the prophet “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.”


In its ruling, the ECHR rejected the Austrian woman’s claim that her characterization of Prophet Muhammad as a “pedophile” was against free speech rights, saying that the Austrian court had “carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected” in its prior ruling. In a series of public seminars, the woman referred to Muhammad’s marriage to a six-year-old girl, which, according to Islamic lore, was consummated when she was nine, as evidence of his pedophilia. The woman was convicted of disparaging religious doctrines already in 2011 by a Vienna court, which found that her remarks lacked proper historical context and thus did not inform the public debate.


The European court recognized that freedom of religion did not exempt people from criticizing or denying a religion but in this case, the court said, the applicant’s comments “could only be understood as having been aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not worthy of worship”. The ECHR also commented that even in a public debate it was not compatible with freedom of expression “to pack incriminating statements into the wrapping of an otherwise acceptable expression of opinion and claim that this rendered passable those statements exceeding the permissible limits of freedom of expression.”


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