European Court of Human Rights Verdict Will Exacerbate Religious Conflict

Despite its reputation as one of the world’s most secular countries, Sweden’s 2018 election saw heated debates over religious issues. Behind these debates lies concerns about the effects of Muslim immigration which, according to the Pew Research Center, is likely to give Sweden the highest percentage of Muslims in Western Europe by 2050.

This concern relates not only to high-profile issues such as terrorism, faith-based schools, or different value systems but also prosaic matters of prayer and noise. When a mosque applied to authorities of the city of Växjö for permission to announce a weekly call to prayer (Azan) through loudspeakers every Friday at lunch time, a national debate began. Such matters are usually handled by local authorities and the police, who issue permits relating to noise, celebrations, demonstrations and the like, but there has been pressure to adopt a country-wide policy.

Some politicians argued that prayers should be solely a private issue and not intrude into public space. Others described a call to prayer over loudspeakers as a virtual proclamation of Muslim dominance over the neighborhood.

There were claims that a Muslim call to prayer is a religious practice that should be defended on religious freedom grounds. Some contended that it was analogous to ringing church bells, which is a normal part of the milieu in most European towns. It was also asserted that if Muslims’ public expression of faith were prohibited, it would set a dangerous precedent for other believers, such as, for example, public evangelism by Christian churches.

Some argued on grounds of the common good and pragmatism, asking how Swedes could best live with their deepest differences with as little social tension as possible, and urged that Muslims should be treated as equal citizens and their mosques afforded the same opportunities as other religious institutions.

Yet others countered that a Muslim call to prayer was markedly different from church bells and was something new to and unique in Swedish society and needed to be treated as such. The call would be a weekly, institutional, public confession through loudspeakers into an area where all faiths and none live their daily lives, the sound even entering into their living rooms. It would be analogous to a local Pentecostal church installing loudspeakers with weekly proclamations that Jesus saves, or secular humanists broadcasting that there is no God, and that such recurring loud confessions would increase tension and make areas unlivable for many.

And there is the simple matter of noise, especially for those trying to sleep. The mosque that had made the application stressed that it was asking for prayers to be broadcast only at lunchtime, and only on Fridays, so it would hardly cause great inconvenience. Others responded that if this was allowed, based on an argument for religious freedom, why not allow the call each day, and why not all five prayer times each day, with the possible exception of the Fajr (dawn) prayer.

These disputes are complex and tense enough already, and there are no ready answers, but a recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on “disparaging religious doctrines” is likely to make them, and similar controversies, very much worse. As has been widely reported, on October 25, 2018, the Court ruled that criticizing aspects of Islam and perhaps other religions could be outlawed if it “conflicts with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.” The judges were focused on a purported insult to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad by Austrian activist Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff and their decision has rightly been criticized as virtually constituting a new blasphemy law. But, like blasphemy laws and accusations throughout the world, it will inevitably poison and often criminalize argument, debate and dispute about religion.

The Court’s finding rested upon protecting people’s religious feelings, and stated that Sabaditsch-Wolff could be punished because her statements “threaten religious peace” and “were likely to disturb the religious peace in their country.” Her assertion of free speech conflicted “with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.” It is hard to see how this focus on protecting feelings and preserving peace can be confined to purported religious insult: these are elastic concepts that can include anything that upsets religious feelings, such as an argument over a sacred text, or broadcasting a call to prayer. Someone complaining about noisy calls to prayer could easily “disturb” religious peace, and people have even been imprisoned for it.

In Indonesia in 2016, Meiliana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman asked her neighborhood mosque in Medan to lower its sound system because it was too loud and hurt her ears. Her complaint triggered riots that saw angry Muslim mobs ransack local Buddhist temples. Meiliana was then charged with blasphemy. Despite statements by Indonesia’s Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, that mosques should indeed avoid excessive noise that disturbed others, and assertions by Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s and the world’s largest Muslim organization, that asking for the volume of loudspeakers to be lowered could never be considered blasphemy, she was convicted. On August 21, 2018, she began serving an 18-month prison sentence.

Meiliana had apparently hurt others’ religious feelings and disturbed religious peace, offenses that the ECHR says can rightfully be punished. In the immediate future there are unlikely to be prison sentences in Europe in controversies over calls to prayer, but disputants in this already controversial subject will increasingly look over their shoulders, and there will be accusations of “disparaging religious doctrines.” Tempers will be inflamed and the religious atmosphere will be poisoned. The ECHR states that it wants to preserve religious peace, but blasphemy and quasi-blasphemy laws throughout the world always have the opposite effect. The Court’s decision will make it harder to resolve issues like calls to prayer and will increase European religious tensions.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and at the Religious Freedom Institute.

Jacob Rudenstrand is Deputy General-Secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance and a Fellow at the Clapham Institute.

Artikeln publicerad hos The Media Project december 2018

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