The decision of the Fifth Section of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of E.S. v. Austria has been welcomed by Islamists in Pakistan and condemned by secularists in Europe. It has also been misunderstood. Some of those who have condemned the refusal of the Court to denounce Austria’s domestic criminal law are those who on other occasions would denounce it for interfering in the sovereignty of an independent country.
In strict legal terms all that the Court has done is to rule that an Austrian law making it a crime – in some circumstances – to “disparage” religion, is not incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
It has not established a Europe-wide blasphemy law. It has not ruled that criticising or insulting Muhammad is a crime. It has not ruled that it is criminal to be rude about the Muslim faith. It has not ruled that Islam is entitled to legal protection denied to other religions.
Nor is it necessarily the last word in the case. There is still some prospect that it will be heard by the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR which could reverse the decision.
But for all that, it is a dreadful judgment, not least because it has immediately and predictably been hailed by Muslim religious fanatics as support for their demand to hang the the 47 year old Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi for supposedly insulting Muhammad. Worse still, it does so at a time when the Pakistan Supreme Court has reserved judgment and is considering whether to uphold her conviction and death sentence.