On October 26 2018, the Republic of Ireland voted to decriminalise blasphemy. The last conviction of blasphemy in the republic was back in 1855, so this referendum was to some extent merely symbolic, removing from the constitution an outdated and irrelevant law. Still, before October 26, a person could still be fined thousands of euros for blasphemous comments, and in 2017, Stephen Fry was investigated by Irish police for disparaging comments made about God in a 2015 interview, in which he asked: “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” Nothing came of the case, but even so, it is a step in the right direction that Ireland has finally abolished this medieval law, which has no place in the 21st century.
As with Ireland’s other referendums on legalising equal marriage and abortion, the country’s decriminalisation of blasphemy has significance around the world in that it shines a light on those countries which are still living in the past. And boy, are there a lot of them. Blasphemy is still a crime in around 70 countries worldwide – including Scotland. True, the last conviction for blasphemy was in 1843, but even so, it is astonishing that the law still stands in Scotland and Northern Ireland, despite having been abolished in England and Wales in 2008. Although unlikely, a blasphemer could still theoretically be fined or imprisoned – or both – in Scotland today.
In many countries around the world, blasphemy laws still very much bite, and even kill. In 2017, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, the then Governor of Jakarta, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for allegedly blasphemous remarks, and he remains in prison today. In Pakistan, where blasphemy is still punishable by death, the 2010 conviction of Christian woman Asia Bibi was thankfully overturned last month; however, around the country, religious extremists are demanding that she be hanged. Her “crime”? Supposedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. It is to be welcomed that her conviction has been quashed, yet it is deeply troubling that Ms Bibi remains in Pakistan, where she and her family are at risk – even her lawyer has fled the country in fear for his life.
What is to be done about such injustices? On an international level, countries that still carry the death penalty for blasphemy (among them: Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia) should be condemned and sanctioned. On an individual level, we should all affirm our respect for everyone’s religious or non-religious beliefs, whilst also defending the right of all citizens of a free society to commit blasphemy.
Blasphemy is directed at a religion, not at practitioners of a religion. A defence of the right to blasphemy is not a defence of religious intolerance – on the contrary, a country which persecutes its citizens for the medieval crime of blasphemy is the opposite of tolerant. It is for this reason that the recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is so troubling. Just one day before Ireland voted to scrap blasphemy, the ECHR upheld the 2011 conviction of an Austrian woman for “disparaging religion”, after she called the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile. The woman was not executed for her “crime” (as she would have been in Pakistan); nor was she imprisoned, as she could have been in Germany and many other European countries. Instead, she was fined €480, plus legal fees, (likely to be substantial after the years she has spent trying to overturn her conviction). But, despite what the ECHR might say, this conviction is a gross violation of this woman’s right to freedom of expression, as defined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
There are of course restrictions on freedom of speech, “in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.” Calling Mohammed a paedophile is grossly offensive to Muslims – but is it any more offensive than Stephen Fry’s comments about “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god” were to Christians? If we accept the ECHR’s ruling that it is wrong to blaspheme if this might offend practitioners of a religion, then we are defending a medieval law that has no place in the 21st century. Almost four years on from the shameful murder of twelve French “blasphemers” (because what else were the writers of Charlie Hebdo?), we should all of us say loud and clear: “Nous sommes Charlie”.