Insulting Prophet Muhammad ‘not freedom of expression’ – European Court rules

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad is a criminal offence and does not constitute freedom of expression.

Defaming the Prophet “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace,” the ruling stated.

The decision by a seven-judge panel came after an Austrian national identified as Mrs. S. was convicted by a lower court in Vienna for disparaging religious doctrines in 2009 when she held two seminars in which she insulted the prophet.

The 47-year-old from Vienna was reported to have held seminars in which she made the blasphemous comments while debating the marriage between Muhammad and Aisha, a six-year-old girl.

The girl, who was one of the Prophet’s 13 wives, became an important figure in Islam but was only six-years-old when they married.

The marriage is said to have been consummated when the girl was aged just nine.

In one of her seminars, Mrs S is reported to have said: “A 56-year-old and a six-year-old? What do we call it, if it is not paedophilia?”

She also said Muhammad “liked to do it with children”.

She was convicted in February 2011 by the Vienna Regional Criminal Court of disparaging religious doctrines and fined about US$550. She appealed against the ruling.

The court said that the woman’s comments could not be covered by the freedom of expression, stating that it had found that “the applicant’s statements had been likely to arouse justified indignation in Muslims” and “amounted to a generalization without factual basis.”

“Mrs. S. appealed but the Vienna Court of Appeal upheld the decision in December 2011, confirming, in essence, the lower court’s findings. A request for the renewal of the proceedings was dismissed by the Supreme Court on 11 December 2013,” it said.

“Relying on Article 10 (freedom of expression), Mrs. S. complained that the domestic courts failed to address the substance of the impugned statements in the light of her right to freedom of expression.”

Mrs S had argued that her right to freedom of speech had been infringed but the ECHR ruled the lower courts had not violated that right, which is laid out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

She also argued that her “criticism of Islam occurred in the framework of an objective and lively discussion which contributed to a public debate” and that she had not intended to defame the Prophet.

In a statement, the European Court of Human Right said: “The Court found in particular that the domestic courts comprehensively assessed the wider context of the applicant’s statements and carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.

“It held that by considering the impugned statements as going beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate, and by classifying them as an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace, the domestic courts put forward relevant and sufficient reasons.”

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