EUROPE: Where there's a will, there is a law

European governments have laws that could be used against religious caricatures

Straits Times
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Rome --- Religious and political figures in several Muslim countries have called on European leaders to use blasphemy laws against newspapers that publish cartoons containing representations of Prophet Muhammad.

In Bangladesh, Minister for Industry Matiur Rahman Nizami was quoted in the press as telling the European Union that if Christianity and Jesus Christ were protected by blasphemy laws, then there was no justification for those laws not being used to protect the rights of Muslims.

And in Lebanon, Shikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the radical Hizbollah movement, on Friday called on European parliaments to pass laws "prohibiting the media from attacking God and the prophets."

But even without new laws, European governments could have resorted to more archaic statutes on blasphemy and incitation to religious hatred to try to stop publication of caricatures such as the ones published by Denmark's best-selling broadsheet Jyllands-Posten.

Denmark has a law providing for fines and up to four months in jail for anyone who "publicly offends or insults a religion that is recognised in the ountry."

However, a court case brought against the paper that printed the Danish cartoons by 11 Muslim groups last October was thrown out, with the judges considering that the issue of freedom of expression was more important than the ban on blasphemy.

Norway has a public-order law dating from the 1930s which in principle outlaws blasphemy on pain of up to six months in jail.

Britain has an old, little-used law against blasphemy, and a new law that outlaws incitation to religious hatred.

However, the former explicitly applies only to the Anglican Church, as Muslim leaders discovered when they tried to use it against the writer Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses.

The terms of reference of the new law on religious hatred have been kept deliberately narrow to take in only acts or words explicitly aimed at sparking violence.

Germany has an anti-blasphemy law dating from 1871, but it has been little used in recent decades.

It was, however, successfully used in 1994 to ban a musical comedy that ridiculed the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception by portraying crucified pigs.

France outlawed blasphemy at the time of its revolution in the late 18th century; the law has never been reinstated.

Italy has a law against "outrage to a religion," which was recently used against journalist Oriana Fallaci over her outspoken statements and writings on Islam.

That case, which adds a charge of "incitation to inter-religious hatred," is still pending.

The Netherlands has a law proscribing what is called "scornful blasphemy" and providing for up three months in jail and a fine of 70 euros (S$136). The last major case brought under the law -- in 1968 against a writer who wrote a poem about having sex with God -- was thrown out of court.

Austrian law prohibits the ridiculing of a religion, punishable by up to six months in jail. But no attempt was made to use it last year when a book of cartoons was published depicting Jesus Christ as a marijuana-smoking hippie.

Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, has a legal provision against publicly offending a person's religious feelings, with up to two years in prison.

An artist, Dorota Nieznalska, is currently being sued under the law for a sculpture in which male genitals were shown attached to a crucifix.