Do we need blasphemy laws?

Ireland has abolished their blasphemy law but that may be replaced in future throughout Europe by a de-facto ‘blasphemy law’ protecting Muhammad from criticism.

It was a surprise to many Irish people to find out that they even had a blasphemy law. The last successful conviction for blasphemy in Ireland was in 1703. But arcane laws on the matter only defined blasphemy in 2009 in an overhaul of defamation legislation. It was in 2015 that the British broadcaster Stephen Fry was investigated for the offence of blasphemy when he responded with a well-known ‘rant’ when asked on Irish TV what he would say to God if there was an afterlife.

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded stupid god who creates a world so full of injustice and pain? The god that created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac, totally selfish.”

I struggle to see how this kind of speech could possibly be construed as ‘blasphemous’. The god that Stephen Fry describes is indeed a maniac, but that is not the God I worship. And in fact, this kind of reasoned discussion of theodicy and the nature of God should be welcomed by all believers.  This is why ‘blasphemy’ laws are wrong.

Christians should never ally themselves with the law solely to protect their own interests. Church law should never be undergirded by the secular state – that way lies persecution of those who hold different views. Christian faith and discipleship is a choice, a gift to be accepted and not something to be imposed. Christendom gave us state-imposed religion and acts of uniformity and blasphemy laws, but we should utterly reject ‘theocracies’.

The problem is that conservative Islam does indeed want to entrench a blasphemy law into public discourse. Pakistan and other states have pressed leading social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to respect their own blasphemy laws and ban insults to their Prophet. Earlier this year a teenage boy from Lahore was arrested for supposedly placing blasphemous content on his Facebook page.

Closer to home, the European Court of Human Rights ruled last week that to call Muhammad a ‘paedophile’ could be defamatory and “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace”.

Now this decision does not immediately create a blasphemy law throughout Europe because this was a decision appealed from Austria where a woman was found to be in breach of the law for suggesting that Muhammad was a paedophile. The ECHR supported the Austrian court’s decision.

According to mainstream Islamic tradition Muhammad had sexual intercourse with Aisha when she was nine years old. It is surely fair, though perhaps unwise, to describe this as paedophilia. But it is worrying that this kind of speech can be prosecuted in Europe.

It has taken us a long time in Europe to get round to abolishing defunct blasphemy laws, so we should think very carefully as a civilisation before we give any religious figure or belief any special protection of this kind. The ECHR decision may create special protections for Muhammad. This is done to avoid offending religious sensibilities but also because of an underlying atmosphere of violence. This is a very dangerous path to go down.

Since The Satanic Verses was published in the 1980s we have had continual conflict with some Islamists over their unreasonable demands that we should respect their view of blasphemy. We have indulged them for too long. It is time we said without equivocation that cartoons of Muhammad, critiques of Islam, and even rude satirical attacks on faith are valued in the West as precious examples of free speech.

The question is whether we are prepared to defend our freedoms or submit to archaic blasphemy laws without any resistance.


The divisions caused by Brexit

At dinner with some very dear London friends, I was amazed to find out how angry they were and dismayed by Brexit. Enough to march for a second referendum and to want the majority vote to be scotched before it is even attempted.

It is a reminder that our society is terribly divided with small minorities on either side in absolutely implacable positions. I continue to take the view, however, that this is merely a fairly inconsequential treaty change that we seem to be making very difficult for ourselves with such weak negotiations.

Nick Bowles, a former minister and an ally of Michael Gove, is suggesting going into the European Economic Area for a period of time while we negotiate a free trade agreement. This has been described as going from Norway to Canada.

We should have advocated this straight away and then we never would have boxed ourselves in with backstops, backstops to backstops and never-ending transitions and implementation periods. I’d be surprised however if this route was still open to us in the time available.

My prediction still stands however, that in the future (perhaps five or 10 years time) we will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Andrew Carey