Although the trial of Dutch MP and critic of Islam, Geert Wilders, and its serious implications for free speech in Europe, is once again creating a furor in the press, another high-profile trial of a critic of Islam — Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, in Austria — is being overlooked.
Ms. Sabaditsch-Wolff now faces up to a three-year prison sentence if convicted of “inciting hatred against a religious group” and “defamation of religion” in a lecture in 2009 on the “Islamization of Europe.”
As allegedly criminal statements fill the indictments of “hate speech” prosecutions, as in the case with Mr. Wilders, the Dutch MP says that he spoken the truth, and the truth cannot be illegal.
If the authorities in the states of the EU have taken note of this axiom, the Viennese state attorney has not. He has taken an even more sinister approach to prosecuting Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff: No statements are listed in the indictment. Instead, her entire three-part seminar has been designated as incriminating.
I am “always careful to distinguish between Muslims and Islam,” Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff says. That, apparently, does not matter.
Having spent most of her life in Muslim-majority countries, she has had much time to get to know Muslims as individuals, and to experience contemporary Islamic culture. She has lived in Kuwait; in Iran, as a child, at the time of the Islamic revolution, and, during the 9/11 attacks, in Libya.
Her stories are undoubtedly disturbing: two of her non-Muslim friends were attacked for breaking the Ramadan fast – one, a Coptic Christian, was assaulted for licking stamps at a post office; the other, for chewing gum. On another occasion, apparently, when Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff sat in her apartment watching the 9/11 unfold on television, and her landlord burst in exclaiming that “the Jews did it,” she asked him to leave.
Such events, she says, with the 9/11 attacks as a catalyst, made her want “to learn more.” She began by researching Islam, sharia, and Islamism; and later became a critic of, and activist against, “Islamization.”
Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff currently represents Pax Europa in Austria, and has represented it at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. She describes Pax Europa as “the foremost human rights organization in Germany,” although it focuses specifically on the growth of sharia law in Europe, and the erosion in Europe of free speech in relation to Islam.
According to Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff, the organization is “non-partisan, not political, [and] does not except any membership from people who are radical, either Left-wing or Right-wing.” She describes her own political outlook as “classic conservative libertarian.”
The three-part seminar on the “Islamization of Europe” that led to her being prosecuted, was delivered at the tax payer-funded Freedom Education Institute, an oranization attached to the Austrian Freedom Party, which had been headed by the controversial Joerg Haider until his death in 2008, and which its detractors describe as “far-Right.”
Described as a “yuppie fascist,” Haider early in his career had made anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi statements. He later attempted to reposition his party for the mainstream, and in 1999 broke through with 27% of the vote. Nevertheless, Haider and the Freedom Party remain controversial.
Although, there has been some effort to tackle honor violence and forced marriages in Europe, the issue of sharia law has been either ignored or, apparently, even encouraged by the major parties of the EU member states. Part of the encouragement may have been – and may continue to be – a political playing-up to the mainstream, Left-wing media, more concerned about “Islamophobia” than Islamism. Possibly ignorance about the contents of Islam — women being worth half a man; wife-beating permitted; injunctions not to socialize with “unbelievers;” medieval punishments for sexual and criminal offenses, and other statements from Allah as told to his prophet, Mohammed — has seen European governments funding extremist organizations, and hiring anti-Semitic and anti-democratic Islamists as advisors, or promoting them as the faces of moderation. Consequently, the issue of escalating Islamism – which concerns very many Europeans – has been relinquished to the smaller parties.
However, Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff is not a member of the Freedom Party, and appears to be more interested in spreading her message than in party politics. Having lived, by choice, in Arab and Muslim-majority countries for much of her adult life, it seems clear that she is also not motivated by “racism” or “Islamophbia” – the usual accusations leveled at anyone criticizing Islam, sharia, or Islamism. Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff was invited to speak at the Freedom Education Institute, she says, because she is “internationally well-known” as a speaker on the subject.
She also insists that “every single page [of her seminars are] fully sourced.” However, with its focus on political Islam in Europe today, this particular seminar had “very little Koran, except for concepts of taqiyya, [dissimulation; permissible lying to achieve one’s goals] sword verses, little historical background.”
In line with Pax Europa, Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff is primarily concerned about manifestations of sharia law in Europe.
Although it may seem more practical to focus solely on Austria, she raises an important point: What happens in one European Union member state affects the others.
Sharia in one EU state might plausibly be used as a precedent in lawfare, and will certainly be used to promote the idea that Islamic law can happily exist side by side with national, secular law, no matter what the reality of the situation may be.
“It is outrageous,” Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff says, “that the EU would accept sharia law in Great Britain; since Britain is a member of the EU, it [sharia law] is basically now in force in Europe.” Sharia courts in the UK, however, are not the only signs of Islamic law in Europe. It is increasingly present in various forms throughout the EU, as Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff sees it. In Austria, “sharia is all over the place in a more or less visible way.” She continues:
Every time an animal is slaughtered halal, it is the implementation of sharia. Every time you have young [Muslim] girls prevented [by their parents, because of their Islamic faith] from swimming together with their [non-Muslim] peers in school you have the imposition of sharia.
[Sharia is bad] for everybody – for Muslims, for non-Muslims, for atheists. It doesn’t matter where, who and how, sharia must never take hold in Western society. I am very firm about that. It goes absolutely contrary to universal human rights.
Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff says she is “baffled” that in democratic, Western nation states, she and others should find themselves being prosecuted for criticizing political Islam.
The case has indeed proved baffling since the beginning. It was instigated by the Left-wing magazine, NEWS, a glossy weekly which sent a young female journalist to “infiltrate” the meeting, according to Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff. NEWS later approached the authorities to press for a prosecution. Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff only learned that she was being prosecuted after reading about it in the Austrian press. The official charges from the department of the Viennese state attorney arrived later on.
She says, with a sense of mission, that she will not be silenced: “Even if I am found guilty, I will not accept the verdict. It will go up to the European Court.”
Legal battles, however, are expensive. Even if Mrs. Sabaditsch-Wolff were to receive nothing more than a suspended fine, the process itself feels like the punishment. “I have to find money to pay my lawyers fee – a 5,000 Euro [nearly $7,000 US] retainer up front,” she admits. “I think it will be a lot more. It will be very hard for me to find the money.”
Noting that no particular statements have been listed by the Viennese state attorney in his indictment, the case against her, she says, is nothing less than an attempt to silence those “people who dare to […] teach people about Islam from a non-Muslim point of view.”
Nevertheless, like others who have found themselves being prosecuted for criticizing Islam, she does not take it personally:
This is not Elisabeth being prosecuted. I am just a proxy. What is burdening me is the burden of history. I am part of history now. I am doing this for millions and millions of people in the Western world, in Europe, in the US, in Canada, who are also champions of freedom, freedom of speech, human rights.