Michael Moynihan, writing at the Jewish online magazine Tablet, points out the similarities between laws that punish the “defamation of religion” — meaning saying anything that offends the religious — and laws that prevent the public expression of Holocaust denial.
After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published its now-notorious cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, the Iranian government responded with a Holocaust cartoon contest and an “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust,” featuring a multiethnic assortment of lunatics and racists who denied that Nazi Germany pursued a policy of genocide against European Jews. A spokesman for the Iranian regime laid out the logic behind the contest: “They allow the Prophet to be insulted. But when we talk about the Holocaust, they consider it so holy that they punish people for questioning it.”
There are clear differences between denying a historical event like the Holocaust and mocking religious prophets, but the Islamists who see a free-speech double standard in Europe are correct. In Germany and Russia, for example, the printing and selling of Mein Kampf is banned (though Germany has recently considered publishing a version of the book annotated by historians). Holocaust deniers can be prosecuted in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Romanian, Poland, and Luxembourg. Other European states don’t explicitly outlaw denial but often prosecute offenders on other statutes, like inciting racial hatred. In all these countries, though, the mocking of religious belief—be it Islam or Christianity—is protected speech.
If the goal of free-speech restrictions is to prevent the rise of right-wing extremism, such legal measures have been largely unsuccessful. In Austria, for instance, where David Irving was imprisoned for Holocaust denial, the populist Freedom Party—whose current leader recently posted a photo of a hook-nosed Jew wearing Star of David cufflinks on his Facebook page—has been hugely successful, with recent opinion polls showing their support at 21 percent. Compare that to the United States, where toxic polemics claiming to have uncovered a “Holohoax” are protected by the First Amendment, fascism is almost nonexistent as a political force, and levels of anti-Semitism are significantly lower than in European countries that criminalize Holocaust denial.
All such laws are not merely unjust, they are also ineffective. In the age of the internet, a copy of Mein Kampf and of the full range of Holocaust denial claims are a mouse click away. Christopher Hitchens got this exactly right, including rightly calling Oliver Wendell Holmes “greatly overpraised.”