A man is escorted into a courtroom shackled and anxious. He enters the room, a social pariah, an outcast, rejected by society. The crowd outside the court is growing bigger by the minute, and an air of almost uncontrollable outrage fills the environs, before the judge utters the first word to begin the proceedings. The ensuing mob would happily take the place of judge and jury and convene a quick execution, praising their creator as the last drop of blood falls from his lifeless body. The court quickly assembles, and an eerie silence is interrupted as the judge calls the court into session. The defendant will face an execution by beheading, if found guilty. He weighs up the prospect of life after the trial and considers the prospect of a swift and imminent death, the lesser evil. His will to live is further diminished by weeks of solitary confinement in prison and arbitrary torture at the hands of overzealous guards. One of three judges read out the charges. He stands accused of blasphemy. The judgement is swift, he is found guilty. The defendant breathes a sigh of despair as he is dragged past the heckling crowds to await his fate. The spectre of a savage execution in the public square races through his mind and despair quickly turns to mortal fear. He has one more opportunity to save his life. If he pleads for a royal pardon, the king may find it in his heart to forgive his crime. He is successful. The defendant is Sabri Bogday, a Turkish national. The year is 2007 and the country is Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately Saudi Arabia is only one of many countries who will imprison, torture and all too often execute people for this perceived crime.
The movie Innocence of Muslims rekindled global disturbances in the Islamic world last month. The film, approximately 14 minutes long, depicts the prophet Muhammad as a philanderer, child molester and general warlord. Despite the fact the movie never made it to television in the west, (possibly because it is extremely badly made and has no intellectual or comedic merit whatsoever), it nonetheless led to cries for the US to introduce an anti-blasphemy law and arrest the movie producer, who is in fact an Egyptian born Coptic Christian, by the name of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. He had produced the movie under the alias of Sam Bacile. The same producer also has a criminal record. Despite these facts, Islamists held the US responsible and its embassies were burned and looted throughout the Islamic world.
These events have reignited the call for a United Nations resolution to make religious defamation a crime internationally. Such efforts almost exclusively come from Islamic nations. The drive to suppress free speech was further bolstered by the Irish government, when Fianna Fail introduced the concept of religious libel in the 2009 defamation act. Ireland was subsequently praised by Pakistan and other Islamic nations for this legislation. Efforts to impose such laws at international level have been on-going since 1999. In the aftermath of the movie, several Islamic States have cited their intention to press for global criminalisation of religious defamation. These States include Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Egypt and Indonesia to name but a few. The rhetoric of their leaders, in relation to the concept of blasphemy, is that religion is so sacred that the hurt caused by religious insult would be too much for society to bear.
The problem with this concept of human sensitivity is it is at best empirically both false and shallow, and at worst murderous. Human civilisation has always thrived on the challenging of some bad ideas, and the outright ridicule of others. The consequence of blasphemy laws, in the European dark ages, was that they granted the right of religious leaders to burn blasphemers and heretics, at the stake, at will. There can be no greater irony and tragedy than to find out that after centuries of countless deaths, that such practices were surplus to requirement. When European countries had anti-blasphemy statutes, their record on human rights was abysmal. Societies went to violent extremes to protect the most delusional beliefs and this resulted in unquestioned power being granted to the most tyrannical religious leaders and institutions. Unquestioning loyalty to the Catholic Church, both out of fear and ignorance resulted in rampant institutional corruption. This ultimately led to the Protestant reformation of 1517.
We can trace the same unquestioning devotion to secular equivalents such as Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot of the 20th century and also the absence of democracy and human rights in the Islamic world. The moral of the last two paragraphs are individuals are free to choose which information they want to digest, but when we introduce a restriction on debate, satire and sometimes outright argument, the consequences have always been dire. We have the choice of respecting beliefs or respecting people, but history has shown us that the two are not mutually compatible. The evidence is glaringly obvious, that societies, who respect the right of free speech and expression above anything considered sacred to anyone, prosper both materially and ethically. All the political ills of the last two centuries show that censorship and delusion among the populace gives rise to unjustified power being granted to people incapable of governing.
If you are in any doubt, just take a look at the human rights record of the Islamic nations calling for these laws, and those who have them at national level. Indonesia, a so called moderate Islamic country has currently imprisoned Alex Aan for posting god does not exist on his facebook page. The presence of an anti-blasphemy law in that country made his work colleagues believe they had the right to assault him because of their religiously motivated offence. The police concurred with them and the crime of blasphemy was favoured over that of assault.
In Pakistan, the penalty for blasphemy is death. There are several cases relating to children being incarcerated for alleged desecration of the Koran. The latest being that of Rimsha Masih, a 14 year old girl with learning difficulties. In March 2011, the minister for religious minority affairs in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car, for his calls to reduce the severity of the country’s blasphemy law. This followed the earlier murder of the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, by his own bodyguard, for his criticism of the same statute. The gunman was praised by many of the local people.
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his writing of the Satanic Verses in 1989. The then British residing author issued a carefully worded apology to which the Iranian supreme leader replied – “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell”. In the aftermath of the Innocence of Muslims film controversy, an Iranian State department suggested that this film would not have been produced, if Rushdie had been killed, and increased the bounty on the writers head to $3.3 million.
While Islamic nations regularly use blasphemy laws to persecute people of other faiths and non-believers, they are not alone. The Catholic Church, in India, has still not learned the lessons painted in the blood of countless Europeans throughout the dark ages, in relation to the concept of blasphemy. Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian sceptic debunked a reported miracle of the weeping cross in Mumbai by asserting that the liquid produced on the cross was caused by capillary action of liquid near a leaking drain. Local Church officials asked him to retract his scientific explanation, and when he refused, they had him arrested under the country’s religious defamation act.
More recently, the trial of Pussy Riot in Moscow had all the signs of a medieval blasphemy show trial, as opposed to the legitimate charge of anti-social behaviour. Putin appears to be using the new found popularity of the Russian Orthodox Church to bolster his own political agenda. This is yet another example of how the protection of religion against criticism can be used, not alone by corrupt religious officials, but equally by politicians to serve their own selfish interest.
The lessons to be learned from this are that Ireland needs to send a strong signal that blasphemy is not a crime, and should never be considered as such. The law should protect everyone’s right to practice peaceful religion, while simultaneously protecting the rights and the public space of those who choose not to. The State should have no duty of care for anyone’s private beliefs. Anti-blasphemy laws provide the necessary conditions for religiously motivated rage to flourish. This is not in the best interest of modern society. The presence of this clause in the Irish constitution, and the proposition of such a clause being entertained at UN level is a tacit endorsement of a medieval and backward concept. Ireland’s example is harmful internationally, even if the law is never enforced, as it provides an example of a modern European State with an anti-blasphemy clause. Instead of State leaders promoting the concept of religious defamation, they need to send out an unequivocal message that we all need to adjust ourselves to become comfortable with those who criticise our beliefs, no matter how strong and passionate we are about them, and if deemed personally necessary, to either learn from such criticism or personally reject it without resorting to violence, intimidation or irrational claims of offence. In short Ireland should, without haste, propose a referendum to remove this outdated notion from its constitution, and the UN should take similar steps to stop the international threat to free speech and human enlightenment that blasphemy concepts pose.