Issue 177: 2018 11 08: Blasphemy laws

Books being burnt

8 November 2018

Blasphemy laws

Going, going…but not gone.

By Jack Wippell

Last Friday, Ireland voted to remove blasphemy laws from its constitution.  It was a unanimous vote in the sense that all 40 constituencies agreed, and an overall 64.85 percent voted in support.  It has been greeted with applause from human rights organisations worldwide, and rightly so.  These archaic laws have no place in a modern society which sees freedom of expression as an intrinsic value.  However, whilst Ireland’s ruling was a start, most commentary has overstated the impact of the result.

Blasphemy laws in Ireland were generally unused before this vote, the last attempt at a conviction being Corway vs the Independent Papers, 1995-7.  One can see why by looking at Spain and the recent conviction of Willy Toledo (an actor) for insulting the Virgin Mary on twitter.  That verdict sparked widespread outrage and the Spanish congress is now reviewing the law.  Nonetheless, even where they are unused, the abolition of blasphemy laws still has an important effect, helping  change global attitudes to the influence of religious bigotry on political life.  In 13 countries, blasphemy or apostasy is still punishable by death, with the recent commotion in Pakistan a prime example.  Changes in law are important for what they encourage in the rest of the world.

But such advances are near useless if not part of a grouped movement.  England and Wales abolished their blasphemy laws in 2008 but this did not include Scotland or Northern Ireland.  On a European level the pattern is the same; we are far from a world free of blasphemy laws.  Around the same time that the Irish vote went through, the European Court of Human Rights decided to uphold the conviction of an Austrian woman who in 2009 had likened Muhammed to a “paedophile” during one of a series of seminars she presented on Islam.  It ruled that her actions were a “malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance” despite the fact that she was referencing Islamic texts that themselves are explicit about Muhammed’s marriage to a six-year-old.  Blasphemy as a criminal offence in Ireland may officially be leaving the law, but similar laws remain strong across other parts of Europe and in minority attitudes even in countries without such laws.  After all, 35.15 percent in Ireland voted “No”.  If there is no united movement to abolish these laws, the movement to encourage freedom of expression globally becomes that much weaker.

Most worrying for Europe, however, is not the existence of outdated blasphemy laws which remain relatively unused and, if used, seem to promote a self-damaging backlash.  No, much more worrying is that the fight over these laws detracts from the fight against other, more pervasive, forms of religious bigotry by providing a false sense of security, a sense that such bigotry plays no role in public life.

It is a misguided to see the abolition of blasphemy laws as sufficient to ensure freedom of expression in this area.  Kenan Malik’s Guardian Opinion piece last week highlighted that whilst Europe has seen the general erosion of blasphemy laws, the legal protection of religious beliefs from criticism has remained.   England and Wales removed their blasphemy laws in 2008, but new hate speech laws, and the broadening of the definition of hate speech itself to protect religious thought, has meant that this removal has had little effect.  Instead, we now have a “secular version of blasphemy laws”.  This erodes the effectiveness of the hate speech laws themselves, undermining their true purpose and damaging their image by extending their scope to prevent the criticism of outdated religious dogma, and the archaic laws that the literalist followers of every religious text crave for.  Karl Popper’s observation that “we should not tolerate the intolerant” should still hold an important place in modern policy.  The abolition of blasphemy laws in Ireland will not make much difference in the general scheme of things if the world slips back into a religious dark age by other routes.

‘Dark age’ may seem a strong term; much has changed since mediaeval times, but when you look at current policies around the world it can often be justified.  Attitudes to and laws on the protection of religious freedom are a prime example.  Take Philip Ruddock’s 2018 religious freedom report in Australia that failed to fully damn the legal right of schools there to expel gay children and teachers.  Clearly, the legalization of same-sex marriage in late 2017 has not stifled homophobic prejudice.  Indeed, it may have just reinforced it as those unashamedly opposed to homosexuality cling to the few laws which remain under their influence.  Many have come out saying that they have never seen such expulsions: good, but then why protect the ‘right’ to expel on such grounds in the first place.  As David Marr put it, “this isn’t about freedom, its cruelty”.

Other supposedly ‘free’ countries are no different.  Faith schools worldwide have arguably fostered something akin to mass indoctrination. The UK is the only country in the world to mandate Christian collective worship in its state schools and only once in sixth form can children choose for themselves whether or not to attend it.  Turkey recently decided to remove evolution from their curriculum.  In the US, there is a pervasive creationism movement.  It is an irony that the protection of ‘religious freedom’ in schools does not seem to give the individual much free choice as to which religion, if any, they choose.

Earlier this year, there was a great commotion over Iceland’s proposed ban on male circumcision for non-consenting individuals (i.e. children).  The commotion was so great, and the pressure from religious communities so strong, that the ban fell through.  Male circumcision is certainly a more equally contested issue than its female counterpart, but for an operation which goes against one of the most basic laws of medical ethics (where there is no need for an operation, none should be carried out), and carries no proven benefit except in exceptionally rare cases, it is somewhat surprising that it is still protected on the grounds of ‘religious freedom’ and that the case was dismissed so easily.  The operations may be very different, and pose different risks, but there is a discrepancy that protects one gender from non-consensual genital mutilation and not the other.  This discrepancy was identified and not addressed.  Even if blasphemy laws are on their way out in some countries, ‘religious freedom’ as a concept still protects religion’s control of the mind and the body in a way which undermines individual liberty.

The success of the Irish campaign should not breed complacency amongst those who took part.  There are bigger religion based issues than inactive blasphemy laws, other rules that have been entrenched in society for just as long.  These often have a much more serious and widespread effect on individual liberty.



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