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Reflections from within a terror manhunt: Strasbourg and the impotence of muscular liberalism

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Christian Legal Centre’s Roger Kiska reflects on his visit to Strasbourg to speak at the Council of Europe in a week which saw the city hit by a mass shooting.

I have always enjoyed spending time in Strasbourg. At the beginning of my legal career, I lived in the French city which lies just on the border with Germany for just over 3 years. It is a picturesque and charming town of less than 500,000 people which is home to the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights.

The normally unshakably-peaceful nature of Strasbourg was rattled on Tuesday, when a gunman shouting Allahu Akbar shot 12 people, killing several of them. I write these reflections sitting in my car at a police checkpoint at the outskirts of the city in the midst of a massive manhunt for the killer. The city is on lockdown, with no one coming in or out without being thoroughly searched.

Ironically, this same city, and the European Court that sits within it, made news only a few week’s earlier by upholding a criminal ‘hate’ speech conviction in Austria. The impugned comments consisted of remarks implying that because Muhammad consummated a relationship with a 9 year-old-girl, Aisha, whom he had married at the age of 6, he was a paedophile. The Court determined that this comment disparaged Muhammad, a figure which the Austrian domestic courts and the European Court held worthy of reverence.

The lower court went to great lengths to assess the truth of the statements, even quoting the World Health Organisation’s definition of paedophilia as the gold standard of how the term should be used. It decided that Muhammad could not have been a paedophile since others had child brides during the same period in history. Therefore, the comments unnecessarily slandered a figure of religious worship.

I would suggest that although the Court is correct that child brides were more common during this period, it in fact missed the point that none of the other individuals who were having relations with children at the time are being held out as figures of religious worship. Criticising this aspect of Muhammad’s life, in fact, serves the greater public debate as child marriages within certain segments of Islam are still happening today, even in the United Kingdom.

To be clear, the concept of ‘hate’ speech in cases like this is nothing more than weaponised political correctness with criminal consequences. The Court’s tolerance and muscular liberalism did nothing to thwart the terror attack that happened only weeks later, or any of the other attacks in Western Europe that have preceded it. To me, the real question about laws condemning criticism of Islam is how many freedoms are we to sacrifice to appease those whose sole aim in life is to destroy the very liberal culture which is so desperately trying to defend their “right” not to be offended.

I had the honour of addressing an audience at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on this very subject on the heels of the attack, behind the backdrop of the manhunt. As part of my remarks, I quoted the Casey Review, a year-long study of community cohesion in the United Kingdom, which observed that:  “Too many public institutions, national and local, state and non-state, have gone so far to accommodate diversity and freedom of expression that they have ignored or even condoned regressive, divisive and harmful cultural and religious practices, for fear of being branded racist or Islamophobic.”

I also noted that within the United Kingdom, if a bystander reacts unlawfully to otherwise lawful speech or conduct, it is the bystander who is guilty of a crime, and not the speaker.

Upon final reflection, I am thankful for the wonderful response undertaken by French and German police following the attack. As I am leaving the checkpoint, I have received word that the killer has himself been killed. We should pray for the tragedy in Strasbourg, the victims and their families. We should also never forget what happened to this beautiful peaceful town. National security and the brave men and women of the police force and military are what keep us safe, not political correctness or measures meant to appease the unappeasable. Political correctness and muscular liberalism have failed us. Too much blood has been spilled. It is time to shift course.

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