European Antiterror Laws Limit Free Speech ; Muslim Leaders Get Caught between New Legislation and Community Expectation to Sermonize on Politics

Article excerpt

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. …