In September of 2012, supposedly because of an obscure “anti-Islam” film named “Innocence of Muslims,” the Islamic world erupted with violent protests towards Westerners for exercising their right to free speech. Since then, Western governments have shown extreme sensitivity to free speech in the West regarding Islam. Just this December, we saw another person targeted by European nations for his critical speech about Islam.
The target this time is a man named Imran Firasat, who is a former Muslim from Pakistan who is now a convert to Christianity and resides in Spain. Mr. Firasat is a well-known critic of his former religion, and runs a website World without Islam (Mundo sin Islam). He, in coordination with American Pastor Terry Jones – who seems to be establishing a brand name for himself as a determined but unrefined speech opponent of the religion of Islam – has produced a new movie about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, an hour long cartoon film called “The Innocent Prophet: The Life of Mohammed from a Different Point of View.” Needless to say, this film does not portray Muhammad in a positive light, basically arguing that Muhammad conspired with his friends to create his own religion to give him ultimate power over Muslims and the World.
The Belgian government was the first European state to overreact to the new film. Soon after Mr. Firasat told the Belgian newspaper De Morgen that he decided to make it, ironically because he thought the Islamist rioting had indeed been caused by “Innocence of Muslims” and that the Western world needed to respond with more free speech about Islam, the Belgium government upped its national security threat level from two to three (meaning “severe”) out of a maximum of four. In response to Belgium’s move, Firasat initially said he might postpone the release of the film so it could be previewed by Belgian authorities to ensure “there is nothing in this movie which doesn’t fall under the right of freedom of expression and that my movie will not cause any kind of loss to humanity.”
Simultaneously, Spain also moved against Mr. Firasat, taking the more serious step of going after him personally for his speech. They initiated two forms of lawfare against him: 1) attacking him on his Spanish residency grounds; and 2) threatening him with prosecution for violating Spanish hate speech codes. The former, their threat to remove him from Spain after seven years, is particularly dangerous for Mr. Firasat. If he loses his residency, he could be deported to Pakistan, which would expose him to a blasphemy prosecution and a death penalty sentence for his speech against Islam. (And even if the Pakistani government doesn’t actually sentence Firasat to death for his blasphemy, Pakistani mobs are known to take blasphemers out of prison and personally kill them.)
The Spanish government is justifying their action to revoke his asylum status on the grounds that he is “threatening national security with the production of this video.” For the latter form of lawfare, the hate speech prosecution, the Spanish government has brought Mr. Firasat into court to face a charge of violating 510 of the Spanish Penal Code, a crime that punishes incitation to hatred and violence for racial, ideological or religious reasons. In combination, this double dose of Spanish lawfare against Imran Firasat was successful – after two hours before a judge in Madrid, he agreed not to distribute the “offensive” video. However, the Spanish government won the battle but lost the war, as Pastor Jones then released the film anyway.
Imran Firasat was somewhat surprised by the aggressive Spanish efforts against him. In an interview, he pointed out that “I was granted asylum because of my criticisms of Islam. I have formally asked the Spanish government for the prohibition of Koran in Spain. I have given thousands of interviews to radio and TV channels. I wrote articles in newspapers.” In other words, Spain knew what they were getting from Imran Firasat when they allowed him to seek asylum there seven years ago, so why would they be upset now? Also, he ironically noted the fact that he has received far more threats from the Spanish government than from angry Muslims.
Perhaps most disturbing, in another interview, Imran Firasat and his interviewer just blithely assumed that the United States could, if it so chose, use its judicial system to go after Firasat and Terry Jones. As of right now, of course, this is simply not true, thanks to the First Amendment. But, as we know, the U.S. has taken legal action against the maker of the “Innocence of Muslims” film, using his probation violations as a way to punish him, presumably for his speech. And considering that fact, and the U.S.’s continuing participation in the Istanbul Process, and President Obama’s UN Speech declaring that “(t)he future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” Mr. Firasat and his interviewer may be forgiven for their mistaken assumption.
One day soon, the U.S. may join European nations as a place legally hostile towards free speech that antagonizes Islamists. That day may very well be sooner rather than later.
Adam Turner serves as staff counsel to the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) and the Legal Project at the Middle East Forum. He is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee where he focused on national security law. This column was written for the LP.