Freedom of speech, expression and conscience are the rights of all human beings regardless of their race, religion or culture. These rights have been enshrined in the 1948 United ations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the post-war constitutions of many European countries in order to prevent the re-emergence of totalitarian governments in Europe. In the 60 years since then, these principles have played a key role in safe-guarding liberal democracy in Europe. However, in recent years, freedom of speech and expression in Europe have come under threat. This comes not only from governments seeking to respond to the increased terrorist threat but also from individuals who have sought to use violence and intimidation to limit people’s ability to freely criticise and discuss Islam and /or the cultural practices associated with the religion.
Arguably the most famous example of such attempts to limit freedom of expression regarding Islam is the sustained intimidation that followed the publication of cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005. In the months following the cartoons’ publication, dozens of people around the world were killed in riots, demonstrations and terrorist attacks while the cartoonists themselves and their editor received numerous death threats which forced them to live in hiding under police protection.
Other prominent Europeans who have been obliged to live under police protection after criticising aspects of Islam include Gustavo de Aristegui, the foreign affairs spokesman for Spain’s Partido Popular (Popular Party) and Robert Redeker, a French philosophy teacher who wrote an article critical of Islam in a French newspaper in September 2006. The
worst type of this intimidation was when the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh was murdered in a street in Amsterdam in 2004 by an Islamist of Moroccan origin. One result of this intimidation and violence is that many commentators and even the most outspoken satirists now admit that they are afraid to treat Islam as they would other religions.
For example, in April 2008, Ben Elton, a British comedian, said that there is a:
‘Genuine fear that the authorities and the community have about provoking xii the radical elements of Islam. There’s no doubt about it, the BBC will let vicar gags pass but they would not let imam gags pass. They might pretend that it’s, you know, something to do with their moral sensibilities, but it isn’t. It’s because they’re scared.’
One additional effect of this type of intimidation is to give the impression, often inadvertently, that many Muslims in Europe are broadly opposed to freedom of expression and that they often react violently and aggressively to open discussions of Islam as well as of practices and values associated with the faith. Yet in reality, there are many prominent
European Muslims (and individuals of Muslim background) who also criticise or seek to reform aspects of Islam and cultural practices associated with the religion and who have also suffered threats, violence and systematic intimidation from extremists as a result. The threats against Salman Rushdie and the Dutch Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and
the murder of individuals associated with them, are two of the most well-known examples of this problem.
This report details the stories of 27 European individuals of a Muslim background – some believing and others not – who have suffered threats and intimidation as a result of their words and actions. The report highlights how their experiences underline the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech and freedom expression, regardless of cultural or
religious sensitivities. Failure to uphold basic human rights would have important consequences, not only for European Muslims but also for European society as a whole.