In his chilling, bitterly hilarious 2016 novel, Submission, the French writer Michel Houellebecq imagines a future France where Islamists attain political power and set about remaking society according to the precepts of Shariah. French elites go along, not because they are particularly enthusiastic about the teachings of Muhammad, but because they are spiritually empty and politically impotent. Islam, meanwhile, is virile, energetic, brimming with civilizational will to power.
Europe took a decisive step toward realizing Houellebecq’s dystopian vision on Thursday, and it didn’t even take the election of an Islamist to high office (as occurs in Submission). The European Court of Human Rights, the body that stands as the ultimate guardian of fundamental rights on the Continent, ruled that governments may curtail criticism of the Muslim prophet if such criticism threatens social comity.
The facts giving rise to the holding were simple. In 2009, Mrs. S., an Austrian national, offered two seminars on Islam at which she discussed, inter alia, Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when the latter was aged 6. The prophet didn’t consummate the marriage until Aisha was 9 or 10, according to most Islamic authorities. Recounting these things at her seminar, Mrs. Seminar asked: “A 56-year-old and a six-year-old? . . . What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?”
Two years later, a regional court found that “these statements implied that Muhammad had had pedophilic tendencies, and convicted Mrs. S. for disparaging religious doctrines,” per an ECHR news release. “She was ordered to pay a fine of 480 euros and the costs of the proceedings.” Mrs. S. appealed, but the higher courts in Austria upheld the lower court decision.
The ECHR’s final ruling was an exercise in bending the law to reach a politically favored outcome. The court began from the conclusory and questionable premise that states can legitimately restrict free expression when “religious intolerance” was at stake. It went on to divine that this was indeed such a case. Mrs. S.’s statements about Muhammad, though accurate, implicated especially sensitive subject matter, per the ECHR, and they didn’t contribute to a “debate of public interest,” such as on the issue of child marriage. And since Mrs. S. wasn’t in a position to opine on Muhammad’s subjective sexual interests, it was wrong of her to impute pedophilia to the prophet.
The conclusion: “In the instant case the domestic courts carefully balanced the applicant’s right to freedom of expression with the rights of others to have their religious feelings protected, and to have religious peace preserved in Austrian society.”
But notice the unstated premise here: The ECHR is suggesting that discussing the history of Islam and the psychology its founder for their own sake is not in the “public interest.” The court is arrogating to itself and the individual European states the power to decide which topics Europeans are permitted to debate and on what terms.
This will not end well for European liberal elites, who imagine they can use coercive judicial power to shut down debates about immigration and assimilation and Islam’s place in Europe. The stultifying, decayed Europe these elites have created, and which they struggle to maintain, is a “false Europe,” as the signers of last year’s Paris Statement, including philosophical luminaries such as Roger Scruton, Pierre Manent, and Rémi Brague, noted:
Europe now seeks to tighten existing regulations on freedom of speech, an aboriginal European freedom—freedom of conscience made manifest. The targets of these restrictions are not obscenity or other assaults on decency in public life. Instead, Europe’s governing classes wish to restrict manifestly political speech. Political leaders who give voice to inconvenient truths about Islam and immigration are hauled before judges. Political correctness enforces strong taboos that deem challenges to the status quo beyond the pale. The false Europe does not really encourage a culture of freedom.
Et voila. The “false Europe” rests on so much spiritual and intellectual fluff. Its custodians have no ultimate truth commitments beyond the “ever-closer” integration of markets and nations. That’s why they fear criticism of Islam: Such theological talk, however crude, reminds them that their own populations still do have ultimate commitments. At least, they have an inkling of what the true Europe was all about, with its classical, Judeo-Christian, and Enlightenment inheritance. Europeans still long for the true, the good, and the beautiful, despite the best efforts of their leaders.
And this is where I think the Houellebecq vision fails as prognosis. The true Europe will return one day, simply because no truth can be repressed permanently, and no great civilization will consent forever to the ignominious silence and self-negation demanded by the judicial censors and petty bureaucrats of the European Court.