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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, January 05, 2012

So much for free speech in Austria

Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, who appears to be a right-wing Austrian politician, has lost her appeal against an earlier conviction for denigration of the teachings of a recognised religion. According to Furious Purpose, her crime was to make the following comments at seminars for young members of her (far-right?) party: "er habe gerne mit Kindern ein bisschen was gehabt" (something like "he had a thing for little girls") and "er habe einen grossen Frauenverschleiss gehabt" (which Furious Purpose translates idiomatically as "he went through plenty of women").

The comments refer to the historical narrative that Muhammad took a child bride, Aisha (with whom he had first had sex when she was nine), and that he had three wives in total. We don't know a great deal about Muhammad that we can be very sure about, but these claims are well entrenched in the traditional accounts of his life.

So, here we have a Western liberal democracy enacting a law controlling what you can and cannot say about a long-dead, semi-legendary religious founder, someone who is clearly not around today to suffer from any damage to his reputation. This is a gross incursion on freedom of speech.

I know nothing about Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff beyond what I read on the internet. She may well be the sort of person we would not want to be associated with - she may be racist, for all I know, and she may certainly have extreme political views. Perhaps those views should be confronted. There is much to say about how to deal with the speech of unpleasant people such as, fairly or otherwise, I imagine her to be. There is also much to said about how we can defend their freedom of speech - and perhaps even agree with them on some points - while distancing ourselves from them and not adding to whatever damage they cause. I'm sure we'll go on talking about this, as we have in the past, and in various forums.

Sabaditsch-Wolff should not, however, be shut up by the state, at least not for these sorts of comments. More particularly, there should not be an offence of denigrating religious teachings. This is fundamentally illiberal and it should be opposed. What's more, the opposition should not just come from her allies on the political right. All of us have a stake in the freedom to denigrate religions and their founders, and more generally to speak our mind on matters that concern us.


Neil said...

Don't know if this is relevant to the judgment, but "Kindern" is not gendered - ie, it should be "he had a thing for children".

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks - not sure if it's relevant, either, but good to know.