Monday, May 04, 2009

On blasphemy

Would you want to be fined, jailed, or even put to death for saying that Brian Cowen is not the true Leader of Fianna Fail? Or for, as cartoonists regularly do, showing him in a comical or undignified light?

Of course not. And, despite the deepening economic crisis and increasing criticism of An Taoiseach, I'm not aware of any plans to introduce such penalties for these acts.

But it's a good thing that Brian Cowen isn't considered a god, at least outside his own party. In many parts of the world there are serious punishments for doing such things in relation to God, the Supreme Being, Allah, or whatever is the name chosen by followers of major religions for their mystical heads. The 'crime' is called 'blasphemy'.

Blasphemy, according to one description, is 'to use the name of one or more gods in a manner which is considered objectionable by a religious authority'. It's pretty open-ended to a lot of interpretation. And to misuse.

Now, I can understand adherents to religious faiths being miffed if someone not of their persuasion depicts their supreme being in an unflattering light. Or even suggests that such said supreme being does not exist. It hits at the core of their belief systems, even implies that they are people who can be easily led by an unproveable concept. But that goes with choosing to be in the territory of faith.

I'm not making argument here for or against religion of any kind. Nor do I take the side of atheist or agnostic, or even those who don't care one way or another. I hope, though, that I'm speaking for reason and sanity, both of which can often be absent or forgotten in a world where people seem easily whipped to religious hysteria.

'Blasphemy' is a dodgy concept on which to base a law. It is first ethereal, because offering indignity to a Being which may or may not exist isn't something rooted in visible foundations. It has, also, been an excuse to revile, abuse, and even kill ordinary people who patently do have a real existence. If some recent extremes in this matter are more noticeable in Islamic contexts, we who have been born into the Christian tradition should take note that four centuries ago 'our crowd' were enthusiastically torturing and murdering in most horrible ways people who disagreed with them. If you haven't paid attention to history, it was called the Inquisition. And it didn't stop there.

Religion and politics have always been intertwined, the first being used by the latter as a method of control. Which is why the worldly leaders of religion have always sought to make sure their views were enshrined in the legal frameworks of countries where their beliefs were established. Our Irish Constitution is no different, with elements providing a special place for the Catholic faith.

It was probably little known that the Constitution even has a prohibition on blasphemy. But that changed recently when the Minister for Justice revealed that he's preparing a proposal to create an actual crime of 'blasphemous libel' in this country.

What in God's Name is he on about, if you will excuse the expression? Lord knows, we have so much recent bad experience in this country relating to religious division, why are our politicians even considering making religion more powerful in our secular lives?

Is it because they're being pressured by the established religions here to further protect their positions? Or is it lobbying from incomer religious interests, so they'll have a legal whip available here against anyone who might disagree with how they keep their adherents in line?

Blasphemy has been slipping off the perch in many parts of the modern world. Even where there are still laws against it, they have been rarely used in the last fifty or a hundred years.

In the UK, blasphemy was removed from the criminal justice code of England and Wales as recently as last year. In the US, where the offence does still exist in some states and where there is an often visible extremism in matters religious, the last blasphemy conviction was in 1928. The individual, an atheist named Charles Lee Smith, had the charge thrown out on appeal.

In Australia, federal legislators dumped the blasphemy laws in the early 1990s, apart from a prohibition on naming a ship with a blasphemous name. Canada still has blasphemy on its statute books, but a later Charter of Rights and Freedoms all but makes it unprosecutable.

Still, blasphemy or blasphemous libel has also been regaining ground in a number of arenas. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is disposed against blasphemy as a crime, but resolutions passed in recent years in the UN Human Rights Council, relating to 'defamation of religion', seem to reinforce the concept. The supporters of these resolutions put them in place to 'prevent the defamation of Islam'.

In Iran, where a fatwah was famously issued to kill author Salman Rushdie because of his 'Satanic Verses' novel, blasphemy is based on shariah law, which the European Court says is 'incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy'. In Islamic Pakistan, blasphemy carries life imprisonment and even the death penalty, and has been used as a political weapon. In the Torah, the basis of Judaism, blasphemy is listed as a capital crime.

The Catholic Church's position on blasphemy is rooted in biblical authority. It once tortured and burned blasphemers and heretics at the stake, but today provides less terminal prayer regimes by which such sinners can make reparation.

Closer to home, several European countries retain blasphemy as a crime, including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany and The Netherlands. Most haven't used the laws for decades, though a prosecution was taken in Germany as recently as 2006.

Our Minister for Justice seems intent on strengthening the concept here, on the basis that our legal framework doesn't carry through the constitutional prohibition. As if he didn't have quite enough more pressing and really important legislation to get through?

Wouldn't it be better, instead of shoring up something that is patently archaic, and potentially an instrument against democratic freedom of speech, that he would propose to simply take the blasphemy prohibition out of our Constitution altogether?

Whether I believe it or not, I cherish the right to be able to say, or for you to say, that 'God is a Ghost'. Which phrase, by the way, was the reason that Charles Lee Smith was brought to trial in the US.

I don't want anything introduced here which would prohibit the expression of a personal viewpoint that any religious godhead might not be what followers say it is. I don't want anyone to be prosecuted for their freely-held views on an ethereal matter.

Of course, I don't want religious believers of any kind subjected to hate or abuse for their beliefs either. But we have already on our statute books incitement to hatred and anti-discrimination laws which can easily deal with this. A blunt instrument making blasphemy a crime in this day and age could come back to beat us all, believers or not.

Forget it, Minister. Put your attention to less lofty, but much more earthly issues in our criminal justice system. God, Allah, and the rest of them are perfectly well able to look after themselves.