The Dangers of Blasphemy Laws
The issue of blasphemy has been in the news a great deal lately; not only because of the poorly made Innocence of Muslims video and the subsequent reaction, but also due to efforts to install international blasphemy laws. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been pushing for international blasphemy laws since 1998. Blasphemy is a serious crime in most Islamic nations but their jurisdiction is obviously limited to their national borders, so international laws are the only possible route to force other nations to adhere to Islamic sensibilities. 2011 was the first year the issue was not raised, however, after the fracas over the Innocence of Muslims video, the OIC has vowed to pursue the issue again. UN Secretary-General said limits should be put on speech when it is used to ‘provoke or humiliate’.
To this end, I decided to write an article on blasphemy, however, after two weeks and several drafts I was nowhere near completion. I was not happy with any of the arguments I proffered. There are several different avenues which the contentious issue can be approached. None, I felt, were quite adequate. For instance, blasphemy at its basic element is thought crime: not holding the same opinion, if any, as your peers about a certain god. It means you must comply with whatever prevalent religion you happen to be born into, it must not and cannot be challenged. Not only is your personal expression suppressed but so is any exploration of differing opinions. Nations which have blasphemy laws also ban books and movies wholesale to prevent their citizens from receiving information which doesn’t abide with prevailing opinion. Blasphemy is the only law in which thought can be a crime. I can think of the worst atrocities of mankind, and even firmly believe they should be carried out, but unless I actually do them, the worst the legal system can do is give me a rather stern warning or maybe some short jail time; but nothing like the punishment which is issued for blasphemy. If it is not clear enough, picture this: A person can run around screaming that they want to rape and kill children by the hundreds and receive a far less punishment (if any) than somebody who simply and honestly proclaims god doesn’t exist.
Would it also not be the case that even religious people could be charged for blasphemy by simply following their own religion e.g. a person who believes Jesus is the one true god is inferring that Mohammed is a false prophet, which is blasphemous according to Islam. Switch the roles and you have the same scenario. This would lead to a situation where religious minorities will be constantly persecuted and harassed by a religious majority, this can already be witnessed in the more religiously controlled nations such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Now, proponents of blasphemy laws will say in a rather underhanded ingratiating manner that the blasphemy laws are there to protect religious people from provocative and humiliating insults to their faith. However, who becomes the arbiter of what is and isn’t insulting? Surely this is wholly subjective and what is offensive to one may not be offensive to others, not to the mention – so what if you are offended, deal with it, people don’t give offence, people take offence. It is totally up to the recipient of the information on whether they decide to find it offensive or not. However, that does not mean you do not have a right to be offended, of course you do, but you do not have a right to punish those who offend you; otherwise we would all be in prison at some point.
So the above rather condensed arguments, while perfectly valid, did not feel sufficient to drive home the dangers that blasphemy laws represent. Because the arguments for and against blasphemy rarely represent how these laws are enforced in reality, so I feel highlighting the actual application of blasphemy laws as the best argument against them, all of which have occurred within this year alone:
A Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, was arrested for desecrating pages of the Qur’an. Rimsha’s age is reported to be between 11-14, and there are also reports that suffers from a mental illness giving her a lower mental age. Rimsha was found with pages of the Qur’an in her bag, and despite her young age she was imprisoned for three weeks in a maximum security prison. A cleric was eventually arrested after a witness saw him plant the pages in her bag. However, she has been to an undisclosed location and may have to live under armed guard for the rest of her life as many people who were found innocent have been murdered afterwards.
Another Christian, Ryan Stanton 16, was arrested for forwarding a blasphemous text message. Ryan lives in a company compound in Gulshan-i-Iqbal Pakistan. The contents of the message are unknown, Ryan himself claims he forwarded the message without reading it. The next day his house was ransacked and its contents set on fire. Ryan was arrested for his own protection but he has also been charged with blasphemy, a crime which carries the death penalty. So here you have two children committing two completely innocuous actions yet their lives are at risk. However blasphemy laws are not merely limited to Islamic nations.
A 27 year old was arrested in Greece for having a Facebook page which mocked a dead Monk who had a cult following. Elder Paisios died in 1994 at the age of 70, he had garnered a following due to his alleged possession of prophetic powers. The Facebook page was named Elder Pastitsios, pastitsios being a pasta dish with beef. The profile picture had an image of Elder Paisios with the pasta slobbered over his face. After receive hundreds of complaints the page was shut down and its creator arrested for blasphemy. The punishment for blasphemy in Greece is up to two years in prison.
Sanal Edamaruku, head of the Indian Rationalist Association, exposed a ‘miracle’ of a dripping Jesus statue and was accused of blasphemy. A statue in Mumbai began to miraculously drip water, it became a pilgrimage site and people gathered and prayed and collected the ‘holy’ water. Sanal flew in to inspect this supposed miracle and quickly revealed the truth. Within minutes Sanal identified a nearby drain which was feeding statue water by means of capillary action. This infuriated the Catholic Bishops who were present and they filed complaints in several Police stations in the hopes of getting Sanal arrested for blasphemy. Sanal has now fled India and is in exile in Finland until these ludicrous charge are dropped.
Buddhist villages in Bangladesh were attacked and burned because a Facebook image containing a burnt Qur’an was posted. Angry crowds attacked and set fire to temples and homes as the village occupants were forced to flee in terror. The houses themselves were looted for any valuables before being set alight. The violence spread to nearby villages where Hindu temples were also targeted. The man who was blamed for the image is in protective custody.
So blasphemy laws allegedly protect people from insulting and disparaging remarks about their faith and religion. However, what we see in reality is the sensibilities of imaginary gods and the faith of people is prioritised over the safety and well-being of actual people: A 14 year old girl’s life is at risk because of a piece of paper she was carrying, a 16 year old boy’s life is threatened because of a text message he forwarded, a Greek man may face jail time because of a Facebook page he set up, Sanal Edamaruku is in exile because he discovered the real reason a statue dripped water, and the reason wasn’t to the liking of Catholic bishop, and homes and temples of Buddhists were attacked and burnt because of an image uploaded onto Facebook. In most nations the above actions by the ‘offenders’ are vanilla and do not warrant any attention, but thanks to blasphemy laws these people deserve punishment, severe punishment. Nothing can be more ridiculous. If somebody says something mean, it does not permit you to reciprocate in a violent manner. However, Blasphemy laws legitimise this kind of mentality. Blasphemy laws permit barbaric actions against people who have done no harm to anyone. Blasphemy laws silence people by intimidation. Blasphemy laws are used to subjugate minority religions. Worst of all, Blasphemy laws prioritise rights of opinion over the rights of humans.
Peter Ferguson is a classicist at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is a member of Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland. Read more of Peter’s work at his website: www.humanisticus.com