The Irish public are voting in their referendum today as to whether they will jettison their ancient blasphemy law from their constitution. This is found in Article 40 which reads :-
“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
This situation did receive degree of public attention when attempts were made to use the law against Stephen Fry on 2017; following his making of blasphemous statement in a television interview. His case was dropped and thrown out as have all other attempts to use the law in recent times. Indeed it is a largely recognised that this is an “obsolete law“, a view which is also held by the Irish Catholic Bishops conference who are, as a consequence, not opposing its abolition. It will be welcome to see the back of this anachronism, a relic from the days that every constitution used to include reference to God and Faith.
Blasphemy laws are simply an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. They do not protect people of any faith, they simply protect those with power. They are a sign of the wedding of state and church and a mechanism to bolster the influence of both of these institutions. They protect some from offense or distress by removing the rights of others to freedom of expression.
People with religious faith do not require blasphemy laws. It is in the nature of faith that it persists despite what others may say, it persists in the face of argument. It is this steadfastness which makes me admire so many of those people of faith, who have soldiered on against apparently insurmountable odds, because their faith directed them to do what they knew to be right. (Think of the Quakers’ opposition to wars or the Abolitionists in the struggle against slavery). Indeed blasphemy laws are largely a risk to people of faith in the many cases when their faith is not shared by the current state. This is the horrific situation in which Asia Bibi finds herself in Pakistan.
Asia Bibi had been out collecting berries with neighbours and had taken a drink of water from a well. She was told by her neighbours that, as a Christian, she was unclean and should have not used their cup. An argument followed and at both parties made disparaging remarks about the others faith. Asia was charged with blasphemy and imprisoned in 2009. She has been kept in solitary confinement and subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death. Seven years later she is still in prison and awaiting results of appeals to the Supreme Court to have her capital punishment decision overturned.
As a consequence of this blasphemy accusation her family have gone into hiding. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who looked into her case and stated that the death sentence should be suspended was assassinated as a consequence in 2011 as was Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minority Affairs Minister, a few months later as he too voiced his support for Asia against the blasphemy laws. Asia’s case has been used to whip up hatred against Christians in Pakistan and to help hard-line religious politicians in their search for support.
As we await the news from Ireland we should recall that Pakistan suggested, in 2009, to the United Nations that all its member states should adopt the very constitutional clause that Ireland is currently considering removing. We should also recall that there are still 71 countries which have blasphemy laws on their statute books. That is 71 countries which have laws which place people of minority faiths at serious danger. It is time that these laws were abandoned for the furtherance of free speech and promotion of religious tolerance.
With all this in mind it is extremely regrettable that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) seems to have taken a backward step. An Austrian woman was found guilty of “disparaging Islam” and the took her case to the ECHR. They did not uphold her appeal and supported her conviction and fine saying that she made ““an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace” and that this was not covered by the right to freedom of expression. To be clear, this lady had not said anything to foment violence or hatred against Muslims which would clearly, and rightly, be an offense. She had simply been sacrilegious and blasphemous and while this may be upsetting to some should not be against the law.
Churches, states and people in power may need blasphemy laws, people of faith do not and are particularly at risk from such laws. After Ireland, 71 to go !