Sinister blasphemy law would play into the hands of religious nut cases

If Jesus were in Ireland today, under the new law, wouldn’t he be one of its first victims, held in Portlaoise, perhaps, while lawyers debated whether he should be deported to Israel, or the Palestinian Authority, or tried here? Muslims might find their mosques under close inspection, too

WE can only speculate as to why Justice Minister Dermot Ahern is proposing to introduce a new crime of blasphemous libel punishable by fines up to €100,000. Is it to salve his conscience for having to implement other policies which offend his personal sense of what is right and wrong? Is it a government ploy to distract attention from more pressing matters? Who knows?

The minister’s side of the story is that successive attorneys general have advised his predecessors that the constitution imposes an obligation to provide legal force to article 40 of the constitution, which states: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

“Blasphemous matter” is to be defined as anything “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

The only alternative, we are told, is for the country to hold a referendum removing that clause from the constitution, an option the minister is resisting on cost grounds.

What price free speech, you might ask? You can’t have democracy if people can’t exchange information, argue and challenge one another.

You can’t have education unless people are free to get information, ask questions and dispute. There is no due process of law unless people are able to speak freely in a court of law.

As if this were not enough, the minister has not offered a single concrete example of what he has in mind to ban; nor has he been able to define a religion. There is a point of principle here. Is it always wrong to try to inspire hatred of any and all religions? Satanists, witchdoctors, Scientologists: must criticism of them be protected by law?

Yes, blasphemy sounds like a bad thing and the instinctive reaction is “let’s have a law against that”. And the abuse of people is very wrong, and there are laws against that.

But what is wrong with inciting intense dislike of a religion, if the activities or teachings of that religion are so outrageous, irrational or abusive of human rights that they deserve to be disliked intensely?

It is nonsense to pretend the minister’s proposal is somehow the logical extension of laws against racial hatred. Our race is in our genes; religion is a matter of choice and conscience and belief. If a religion is worth believing in, it ought to be strong enough to withstand the most scurrilous and monstrous attacks. Those assaults should diminish the critics, not the religion itself.

Those who cry “blasphemy”, however, all too often simply mean they are offended. Isn’t God made of altogether sterner stuff? From the Christian point of view, if God is big enough to absorb it through the humiliation and agony of the cross, then wouldn’t the Christ-like thing be to put up with altogether less harmful attacks?

There has only been one (unsuccessful) prosecution for blasphemy under the current Defamation Act. But if blasphemous libel were to become an offence, the gardaí could be kept very busy indeed.

For instance, couldn’t it be argued Jesus insulted the Jewish faithful? Isn’t the Christian belief that Jesus is God a blasphemy to Muslims and Jews?

If Jesus were in Ireland today, under the new law, wouldn’t he be one of its first victims, held in Portlaoise, perhaps, while lawyers debated whether he should be deported to Israel, or the Palestinian Authority, or tried here?

Muslims might find their mosques under close inspection, too. If the proposed bill makes any sense at all, it must entail banning the public reading of many passages of the Koran calling for Jews and Christians to be despised and killed. Surely that is not the intention?

If the minister does not mean such a ban, then his proposal is a nonsense. If the proposed bill would not have any force against such blatant incitements, then wouldn’t its very existence on the statute book possibly provoke unrest from those who believe it should be vigorously enforced?

In other words, this proposed piece of legislation is either going to encourage censorship, which is abhorrent, or else it is going to raise false hopes and inflame even further the resentment of those who feel their religion has been insulted.

The fact is the DPP will find it impossible to make an adequate distinction between the freedom to ridicule or lampoon religion, and the freedom to hold it up to contempt and hatred. One man’s satire is another man’s blasphemy.

To criticise people for their race is manifestly irrational, but to criticise their religion is surely a right. The freedom to criticise or ridicule ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is a fundamental freedom.

And a law which says you can ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very odd law indeed. The minister’s proposal would put belief into a sacred compound protected by legal razor-wire from robust mockery or public abuse. Religion would become a minefield, a no-go area in the world of ideas. Before you speak or write, ask yourself not only if you intend to abuse and insult, but if you are doing so “grossly”.

Expect the degree of insult people feel to tighten a little more each year under case law. All that will be required is for a priest or minister or rabbi or imam to say his flock is insulted and, hey presto, case closed. Little by little, debate will be chilled.

THIS is not some mere theoretical, legalistic discussion. Have we forgotten that some churches in South Africa within living memory promoted the view that white people were superior to blacks and coloureds? Do we not recall some of the hateful things said by extreme elements in Northern Ireland against minorities?

Don’t some strands of Islam promote female circumcision? There are lots of little fascisms masquerading as religions in this world. But if the minister gets his way, these nut cases will be protected from all criticism. All they have to do is claim it is their deeply held religious belief and I will be heading for a whacking fine.

Indeed, the proposed law is so sinister and intimidating, it will provide that immunity without even the need to prosecute anyone. In other words, we will have self-censorship.

The problem with blasphemy laws is that race and religion are fundamentally different concepts. Yes, it can be hard to separate the two sometimes, to separate abuse of people’s ideas from abuse of people who hold those ideas, but isn’t that what judges are there for?

Ideas cannot be policed, though blatant threats always have been. The minister should go to the country on the issue. And if the public finances really are so bad that a referendum cannot be afforded – a sad indictment in itself – the appropriate maximum fine should be one whole euro.

Even €100,000, though, would be a price worth paying if that’s what it takes to keep society free.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Some of the best bits from direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up