European antiterror laws limit free speech

Muslim leaders get caught between new legislation and community expectation to sermonize on politics.

European countries, struggling to deal with firebrand Islamic clerics, have scrambled for laws to tone down the imams' provocative pronouncements.

But in cracking down on such rhetoric, which some have blamed for encouraging youth to take up radical, violent jihad, European authorities are in danger of trespassing on the right of free speech, widely viewed as a fundamental principle of democratic societies.

From big countries with large Muslim minorities like Britain, France, and Germany, to smaller countries like the Netherlands and even Switzerland, few have yet to come up with answers to highly subjective questions: Where does orthodox Islamic discourse and doctrine become incompatible with Western society? What sermonizing is acceptable in a mosque? Incitement to terrorism? Criticism of the Iraq war? Moral strictures about the place of women or homosexuals in the world?

"It's not so easy to say," says Arnoud Strijbis, an official at the justice ministry in the Netherlands, which is mulling whether to expel three clerics to their countries of origin. "There is always a tension between national security on the one hand and freedom of speech and religion on the other."

Different countries have drawn the line in different places. Many have warned imams that they face deportation (if they're foreign) or prosecution (if they are nationals) if they actively encourage and incite terrorists.

France, Italy, and the Netherlands have already started deportations, although even this measure is controversial if the imam is being sent to a country where he may face torture. And Germany's new immigration law, passed in January, makes it easier to deport imams who call for terrorist attacks.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, incensed at remarks that "glorified" the July 7 London attacks presented legislation to Parliament Wednesday that makes it an offense to speak favorably of terrorist acts if the utterances are likely to be understood as an inducement to terrorism. Government officials told reporters this could include calling the 9/11 terrorists "martyrs."

Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain calls the planned legislation "misguided" and says the problem with stipulating what preachers can and can't say is that mosques are centers for more than just spiritual devotion. As community and faith leaders, imams are expected to dissemble not just on the scripture. "We don't have distinction between the mundane and the political," says Bunglawala. "Islam brings the two together, so it's not just spiritual discussion but day to day discourse as well.

"Many Muslims have strong feelings when it comes to questions like Palestine and Chechnya. This whole glorification issue confuses support for people who are engaged in resisting oppression and those engaged in mindless acts of terrorism," he adds. The Law Society commented that under such a law, even Mr. Blair's wife, Cherie, could be prosecuted for remarks made in 2002 expressing understanding for the rationale that drives young Palestinians to suicide attacks.

Several countries are also discussing other clerical rhetoric considered unacceptable, from so-called 'hate preaching' to racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism.

In France, for example, authorities are using existing laws against anti-Semitism, 'hate speech,' and sexism to bear down on preachers espousing these causes, according to Olivier Roy, an eminent scholar of the Islamic world.

The crackdown, he says, is "largely symbolic ... It is supposed to oblige the more radical imams to adopt a lower profile. But there is no close monitoring of the mosques in France.

German imams who propagate hate against any part of the population can now be deported. A Berlin preacher was ordered expelled in March for calling Germans "useless, stinking atheists," though the move was later blocked by the constitutional court. At least two foreign imams have been barred from entering Germany since the law was introduced.

The German Muslim community has little against the law. "As long as they don't involve themselves in politics, then they have enough freedom to preach as they wish," says Burhan Kesici, spokesman for the Berlin-based Islamic Federation.

In Switzerland, which has a much smaller Islamic community, authorities this week prohibited an Islamic center in Geneva from hiring a Turkish imam because of doubts over his teachings. The government is already concerned about some of the ideas of the center's director, Hani Ramadan, who has said that women who commit adultery should be stoned, and that AIDS was a form of divine retribution against sinners.

"There are no specific rules," says Dominique Boillat, a Swiss immigration official. "But there is a general rule that ... people who have responsibility like imams have to respect our basic principles, which are equality between men and women and order in the society and not appealing for aggression."

"If somebody is acting like that, if they are not here, we could decide not (to let them in). If they are already here, we can say 'you can't live in Switzerland.' "

Bunglawala says the European moves against imams are disappointing because it will increase anxiety in a community at a time when governments should be doing whatever they can to bring mainstream Muslim society on board.

"Europe has prided itself on robust debate and allowing strident viewpoints," he says. "It seems everyone else can have those except Muslims."

Andreas Tzortzis in Berlin contributed to this report.

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