Protests over an American-made anti-Islamic YouTube film, Innocence of Muslims, have spread to Europe. Muslim rioters have clashed with police in several European cities, and more demonstrations are being planned. The protests are part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about the amateur film, which ridicules Islam and depicts the Muslim Prophet Mohammed as a fraud, a madman and a sexual deviant.
Muslims in many European countries are calling on governments to outlaw the controversial film. They are also pressing elected officials to enact anti-blasphemy laws that would criminalize the criticism of Islam. As most European countries lack American-like First Amendment protections, the momentum is building for the imposition of legal curbs on free speech when such speech is perceived to be offensive to Islam.
In Belgium, police using pepper spray and batons arrested more than 200 Muslims in the northern city of Antwerp after clashes at a demonstration against the film. The protest in the Borgerhout district of the city was organized by an Islamic fundamentalist group called Sharia4Belgium. The protest was organized via a text message which read: «We are ready to work with our souls and hearts to fight for our beloved prophet, even if death comes to meet us. Whoever has love for the Prophet must be present.» In Brussels, police arrested more than 30 individuals who participated in two separate protests — one in the Sint-Joost-ten-Node district, and another one in downtown Brussels near the American embassy.
In Britain, some 300 Muslims protested in central London outside the American Embassy. The crowd included many radical Muslims associated with the hardline group, Hizb ut-Tahrir; they shouted slogans and held placards, saying, «America — Get Out of Muslim Lands.» The gathering, which consisted mostly of men but also some women and children, listened to speakers who condemned the film, U.S. foreign policy and the «oppression» of Muslims.
In France, police in Paris arrested 152 Muslims for taking part in an unauthorized, impromptu protest on September 15 at the Place de la Concorde near the American Embassy; there were a number of clashes, with four police officers hurt.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he would prevent any further anti-American demonstrations sparked by the anti-Islam film. «I have issued instructions so that this does not happen again,» Valls told France 2 television. «These protests are forbidden. Any incitement to hatred must be fought with the greatest firmness.» Valls also said that among the roughly 250 protesters, there were some groups that «advocate radical Islam.»
Nevertheless, Muslims have now issued a call via text messages and social media for new protests to be held on Saturday, September 22, at 2pm at the Trocadero district in Paris. The President of the anti-immigrant National Front party, Marine Le Pen, said the protests mark the beginning of a process of «intimidation» by Muslims.
In Germany, major Muslim umbrella organizations have warned that the movie could «endanger the public peace» and lead to «street massacres» in German cities. The chairman of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, Aiman Mazyek, has also called for a legal ban on the film within the Federal Republic. «I do think that we must use all legal means to ban the film,» Mazyek said in an interview with ARD television. Mazyek continued that the video had the goal of «sowing discord and hatred,» and therefore «I would use all means possible to outlaw the film.»
German political leaders are now equivocating about their commitment to free speech. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, commenting on the anti-Islam movie, said, «I can imagine there would be good reasons to outlaw the film» – a reversal of her statement of just two years ago, when, commenting on the Danish cartoon controversy, she declared: «Free speech is one of the greatest treasures of our society.»
Separately, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he would consider all legal options to ban public showings of the anti-Islamic film. He said Islamic extremists such as the Salafists are likely to incite violent protests within Germany, which Friedrich called a «highly dangerous» situation.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has also pleaded for a ban on the movie, arguing that freedom of expression has its limits. «The abuse of a religion that is likely to disturb the public peace is forbidden to us,» he said in an interview on Deutschlandfunk German radio. He also argued that a ban on the film would send the message that «Germany does not stand behind right-wing radicals who insult other religions.»
Section 166 of the German Penal Code already restricts free speech when it involves «insulting religion or belief.» In a landmark Section 166 case in 2006, for example, a German retiree in Lüdinghausen was sentenced to 12 months in prison for writing the words «Koran, the holy Koran» on toilet paper and mailing it local mosques.
In Norway, Muslims are planning to hold several demonstrations to protest the anti-Islam movie, including one event due to take place in front of the American embassy in Oslo on September 21. Oslo police said they intend to approve the application for the embassy demonstration, but will also be on hand themselves.
In Spain, the national Islamic Commission, a Muslim umbrella group, says it is organizing events in all major Spanish cities to «raise awareness about Islam and its prophet in a truthful manner.» The group has also asked the United Nations to issue a resolution calling for the «respect of all religious beliefs.»
In Switzerland, Muslims in the city of Bern have received authorization from city officials to hold a demonstration near the American embassy on September 22. The event is being organized by the Central Islamic Council of Switzerland, a conservative Islamic umbrella group, together with two other Islamic organizations. At least 200 individuals are expected to protest «for our Prophet Mohammed and the protection of religious feelings.»
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.