According to dominant Islamic traditions, the Prophet Muhammad’s third wife Aisha was six years old at their marriage and nine at its consummation. Muslims, as Graeme Wood has pointed out, have debated the issue of Aisha’s age for a very long time, and critics of Islam seemingly can’t keep off the subject.
In the fall of 2009, a woman referred to as E.S., a 47-year-old Austrian national, convened two seminars offering “Basic Information on Islam” at the right-wing Freedom Party Education Institute (FPEI) in Vienna. The seminars were advertised on the Freedom Party’s website and were open to members of the public. Each attracted around 30 participants, including an undercover journalist, who lodged a complaint against E.S. to the police. The substance of the complaint related to two comments E.S. made in the course of a discussion about Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha. He “liked to do it with children,” she asserted, adding, “A 56-year-old and a six-year-old? What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?”
Now, in a historic move, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has waded into this inflammatory controversy, ruling, in effect, that no, he wasn’t a pedophile and no, you can’t publicly refer to him as such.
It is a drastic overstatement to suggest that the ECHR ruling amounts to a jettisoning of, in the words of the British commentator Douglas Murray, a “whole system of critical inquiry which has made Europe what it is today.” But it has given legitimacy to what is in all but name an Austrian blasphemy law, and by invoking the slippery notion of “religious peace,” it has effectively given a veto to those who would deploy violence in defense of their religious beliefs.