Who is paying the penalty?

Ireland: where the public and officials only reap short term rewards and ignore long term consequences.

Ireland: where the public and officials only reap short term rewards and ignore long term consequences.

Humility is not a quality that Irish political culture seems to be over burdened with. It could well be argued that humility is one of the first qualities to be jettisoned in the pursuit of a successful political career. One would hope that those pursuing a career in politics do so with their heart full of an altruistic sense of public duty and a desire to fight for the greatest good for the greatest number of people; you would hope that people look beyond the local and the immediate to think nationally and in the long term. Many may well launch themselves steeled by this zeal only to have it stripped away by the reality of our political culture. The truth of the political arena in Ireland is that it has been overpopulated by an incestuous ruling-class and quasi-hereditary seats in the Dail. So as this bloated edifice became beyond parody in the final throes of the Celtic Tiger, we hoped, given Ireland’s fall from grace and the punishment doled out to Fianna Fáil at the ballot box, that the surviving politicians of Ireland would notice the sea change and act accordingly.

This of course has not happened, due mainly to the reason that Ireland had its sovereignty signed away by the last shower, who gave the new Government ready made excuses for their policies. The harshness of our government’s policies is not the focus of my ire on this occasion, rather it is the continued absence of any humility on behalf of our politicians and complacency among the Irish electorate in expecting more from their representatives. There are plenty of bogey men to point the finger at in Government, not least ‘Big’ Phil Hogan, a man blessed with an ego and sense of righteousness which would not seem out of place amongst the cartoonish villains of the WWE. Rather it is the political culture and the lack of its evolution which has brought me to the keyboard today.

On the front page of the Irish Examiner 8/04/2013, former Ceann Comhairle and current Fianna Fáil TD Seamus Kirk said it was as easy as picking up the phone to get rid of penalty points. There is a constitutional clause which exempts TD’s from road offences if they are on their way to take part in a Dáil vote. This was a clause left over from the Civil War and by right should be exorcised from the constitution. However, more telling about the political culture in Ireland is the revelation of the willingness of constituents to ask their TDs to get penalty points squashed for them, this kind of localism and clientalism is one of the objectionable practices we would have hoped would have been left behind after the last election. The Gardaí have since had an internal investigation, where it was found that, while penalty points have been squashed, nothing corrupt has occurred. This is a staggering example of a worrying culture within the Gardaí, our politicians and ourselves. An offence has been committed and there is nothing corrupt about asking the Gardaí to get rid of the punishment. What has set alarm bells ringing is how this seems to have infected some of the newest members of the Dáil.

The last election, lest we forget, is when the Irish people put down the ‘Bolly’, stepped away from artichoke canapé and voted to punish the political culture which we had allowed to flourish by allowing them to dope us up to the gills with cheap money. “Down with that sort of thing!” was what we bellowed from the ballot box. Fine Gael stomped away with a record number of seats but what was more interesting was the emergence of independents who represented, they claimed, the ordinary person on the street and promised to ask the difficult questions.

Archaic parliamentary processes make it difficult for a lone voice to have any affect and so this motley crew banded together despite having ideologies that ranged from Claire Daly on the left and Shane Ross on the right. Included in this group we have Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, a man who has undergone an interesting evolution; from outsider-agitator sending joints to TDs in an effort to legalise marijuana, to the Mayor of Roscommon and now an independent TD promising to protect turf-cutters in his locality. He is one individual who has recently found himself in trouble for having penalty points squashed. This is an issue that he campaigned against – Gardaí corruption – so I hope the irony hasn’t been lost on him (although judging by the beard he has been sporting, perhaps Ming and irony are not familiar bedfellows).

The issue of the penalty point squashing may appear to be a small fish compared to the problems facing Ireland on a day-to-day basis. The public service is on the verge of a mass walk out over pay and conditions so why do I concern myself with issues that pale in significance in comparison? The reason is that this is a systemic problem, one which permeates through every level of decision making. It is the culture which will force homeowners in unfinished estates across the country to pay the property tax despite the fact they are living in estates that are continuing to degenerate. It is a culture that has, two years on from the general election and five years on from the beginning of the economic collapse, endorsed a government which seems to be incapable of standing up to the banking system in Ireland. We are still no closer to sorting out a deal which takes the proposition of evictions off the table for families across the country. I’m not talking about debt forgiveness here but there are many other options such as equity for debt which are viable.

It seems that the cosy relationship between our political class and the banking sector continues despite the pain and suffering which it has caused in the last five years. Perhaps the margin of their election win has meant that Fine Gael have become complacent in their position as Ireland’s biggest party but it is the very lack of political cultural evolution which they should be wary of. They may well suffer a double whammy of being in charge when there is no money with difficult and unpopular policies to be made (see Cameron’s Conservatives in Britain who are on their way out after one term but are determined to dismantle as much of the state as possible before they leave) and the willingness of the Irish electorate to forgive and forget about Fianna Fail’s ineptitude when they last had their hands on the wheel. One should always be suspicious of mid-term popularity polls but there is the very real prospect of Fianna Fáil making a significant recovery before the next election.

So, are we, in fact, responsible for the lack of development in our political culture? Have politicians, bankers and developers driven us into this quagmire because we have allowed them to? A former History professor of mine, who is of some note, told us that we were ‘face down in the trough for too long’ and that we are all culpable for letting this culture to develop. We were bought off with tax cuts, cheap credit and second homes and we allowed this attitude of arrogance and ‘cuteness’ to fester.

There is an intriguing email exchange between two heavyweights in the theory of Power, Stephen Lukes and Clarrisa Hayward, debating the role of responsibility and agency in power. To try and sum it up would be a fool’s errand but here we go anyway. Lukes’ case is that full responsibility must lie with the actors, whereas Hayward puts forward the case that the social constructs of society influence greatly the actions of actors – essentially that society creates the parameters under which abuses of power are exercised.

What have we done to change this? We elect on local issues and we tolerate abuses of position and power and we solicit abuses to have our own penalty points squashed. Look across the water, to Britain where Chris Hune MP is facing prison time for asking his wife to take his penalty points. I’m not being unrealistic here, I’m not asking for whiter than white politicians who never put a foot out of step and I am aware by continuing to use words such as ‘evolution’ that time is required.

What we should, at a bare minimum, be asking for is transparency and accountability from our politicians, those at least would be steps in the right direction in arresting the decline in the relationships between the people and the officials we put into power. Then when faced with honest and open assessment of their work perhaps we can reassess our own actions and motivations at the ballot box beyond our own selfish desires.

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Thatcher

The 8th of April will forever see the addition of the passing of Margaret Thatcher in newspapers around the world. Aged 87 and having suffered from a stroke there have been few public figures from the last 40 years whom have stirred up such strong feelings, to the extent that a classmate of mine from college who was perhaps 21 years old at the time sported a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ this a full 21 years after she had left power. Glen Greenwald has already written a piece in the Guardian about the culture that has arisen wherein the death of a public figure exempts them from criticism, pointing to the very clear difference between being part of commemorating a private citizen and criticizing a public figure. There is always a rather distasteful element of ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’ that surfaces in these occasions quickly followed by a slew of jokes. It’s unedifying to celebrate the death of a human being but let’s not white wash her role in history.

In this age of social media, I always fear I’ve shed some ‘cool points’ every time I write that phrase, it’s a tough call to complete this whitewash. My Twitter timeline exploded with quotes from the Iron Lady with regards to the friends she kept. It’s all out there she had strong relationships with numerous odious figures such as Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and The Shah of Iran. She went to war over a rocky island of sheep herders on the other side of the world, a stroke which saved her skin at home where her deregulation and privatisation policies saw Britain lurch further into the mire between 1979 and 1981. She supported Apartheid in South Africa, to keep Communism at bay apparently and accused Mandela and the ANC of being terrorists.

At home in Britain she is accused of being responsible for the north/south economic divide, she crushed the unions and broke up as many of the state owned businesses as possible. She dived into deregulation and privatisation breaking up the bloated system which had developed under the Labour government with absolute faith in the stability of Free Market laissez faire economics. She cemented the existence of the City of London as a state onto itself within Britain (a cause taken up with zeal by Tony Blair almost 20 years later). One of her biggest PR strokes was allowing people to buy their council houses. The fetishisation of homeownership that we are currently suffering the worse excesses of right now, can well be traced back to this moment. You can all be home owners and we’ll give you the loans to do it. Thatcher over saw a huge explosion of credit.

On this side of the Irish Sea to say there are mixed feelings would be an understatement. Irish people have a strange habit of respecting people that had no warm feelings for them. One person who sang her praises was Charlie ‘Champagne’ McCreevy. Yes that’s right, the man who was finance minister during the government which left Ireland in the worst economic crisis of its history. Listening to the news today I had to chuckle to myself as Gerry Adams took the moral higher against a woman he accused of ‘collusion’. To say she had a mixed record in the North would also be an understatement.  This is the same Margaret Thatcher that gave Dublin its first say (discounting then doomed Sunningdale agreement) in the running of Northern Ireland through the Anglo Irish Agreement.

There is a trite expression that ‘History is written by the winners’; this is, to a degree, true and depending on where you stand on the ideological spectrum will very much colour your views on Thatcher. Whatever you felt about her politics one must admire her ability to rise to the top and stay at the top of one of the most male dominated spheres of public life.

Margaret Thatcher: A feminist icon, just one you mightn’t brake for.

Swansea City’s Triumphant Return and Other Less Publicised Happenings.

Six of us left the university campus, running predictably late, and made our way over to the Guildhall. This was the final destination of the victory parade of Swansea City after claiming the League Cup on Sunday in a 0-5 defeat over Bradford. It was a momentous occasion in the club’s 100 year history being their first major trophy, and, as a speaker later went to great pains to highlight, the first time a Welsh team had won it.

We walked down Mumbles Road and due to one of the group having hours previous passed his PhD defence our spirits were high. However, we couldn’t say the same for the gentleman we came upon who was having car troubles.

Some people were having a better day than others.

Naughty car.

There was some concern amongst the group that we’d left it too late and probably missed the arrival of the team bus. The eldest of us – taking a well earned break from extinguishing the light in the eyes of students by building a convincing case against free will – tapped into his infinite, aged, wisdom and proclaimed that “These things always run late.” followed by a less assured “Don’t they?” He wasn’t wrong.

As we turned the corner onto the Guildhall the team bus was just at that moment moving at a crawl through the assembled fans. Perfect timing.

This was the scene that awaited us at the Guildhall.

The scene that awaited us at the Guildhall.

Swansea City players overlooking the throng of fans.

Swansea City players overlooking the throng of fans.

The Swans mascots also made an appearance with the players atop the double decker bus. Apparently there are two. One male, and presumably one female. You know, because it’s got pink feathers and looks ‘girly’… The male on the other hand looked like a very moody breadstick. By the looks of it he didn’t appreciate me taking a photo of him either. I can almost hear him hissing. I’m sure there’s some joke and pop reference to Angry Birds in there somewhere but I’ll spare you.

I wonder do they have any cygnets?

I wonder do they have any cygnets?

Some of the jubilant Swansea fans took to the rooftops in a Beatles-esque moment.

Well, granted there are 5 of them and they don't have any instruments.

Well, granted there are 5 of them and they don’t have any instruments.

Other people took advantage of the very specific demographic that turned out for the event by offering flags and various items of clothing emblazoned with the black and white colours of Swansea.

Look at the size of those pegs! Where does someone go to buy them?

Look at the size of those pegs! Where does someone go to buy them?

After the initial excitement of the team’s arrival the cheers of the crowd were drowned out by, at least to me, an unknown figure with a microphone. He boomed over our heads trying to whip us into an even greater state of frenzy before the team, and all associated with them, made their way through from the back of the Guildhall.

The master of the microphone.

The master of the microphone.

The excitable and affable speaker invited Swansea City manger Michael Laudrup forward and made a remark to the effect of Laudrup being elected president of Denmark only for Laudrup to retort “…we don’t have a president” to the amusement of the crowd. Laudrup went on to state that “The first time you win something like that (League Cup) it’s tremendous.” and while expressing his pride and also that the players are always the most important element in any success, he thanked the crowd for turning out on a cold February evening.

Michael Laudrup making his way forward to address the fans.

Michael Laudrup making his way forward to address the fans.

Clearly I struggled to get a good vantage point for my camera but others had no such problem. Granted they may not have been too excited by what they were seeing.

I can't remember now if he was standing on something or was abnormally tall. Either way, he looks bored of looking down on the halfings.

I can’t remember now if he was standing on something or was abnormally tall. Either way, he looks bored of looking down on the halfings.

The microphone maestro invited various players forward to speak and thank the fans. There was some banter about the fans being warm to welcome the team back in this fashion with a player quipping that “I think they’re cold!” – in reference to the conditions – but the most amusement was had with the appearance of Chico Flores. “Hello my friends. My English is not very good but it’s important.” he began, presumably referring to their victory. The keeper of the microphone joked “I’ll translate. He said, ‘My English is not very good but I’m important’ ” which was met with laugher from the crowd. After having other things he said mistranslated from poor English into poor humour Chico rounded his speech off with a cry of “I love you!

Chico trying his hand at English and possibly not understanding the ridicule from the speaker.

Chico trying his hand at English and possibly not understanding the ridicule from the speaker.

At this point I realised I was in the situation where nature was calling at the most inopportune time. I made a quick escape in search of facilities. It was only then that I noticed the television broadcast vans.

Nice bit of kit.

Nice bit of kit.

On my return to the celebration I popped over and was kindly allowed to take a snap of the interior of the van in the foreground above. The tech nerd in me couldn’t resist.

That all looks very expensive.

That all looks very expensive. Apart from the whiteboard. That just looks like it’s in deep cover, infiltrating the advanced enemy.

From there the event began to wind down. Not that this was a cue for our group to return home. Far from it. We embarked on a dual celebration of Swansea City’s success and that of my aforementioned colleague. We popped into the pub next door and admittedly had a few pints. While there I noticed one of the punters had apparently decided that the pub was the best place to watch The Ricky Gervais Show. If he was having a beer I’d imagine a lot of Pilkington’s streams of consciousness would become even more difficult to follow.

Punter listening to the wisdom of Karl Pilkington.

Punter listening to the wisdom of Karl Pilkington.

As the evening progressed, at one point, apparently my hand had swollen to gargantuan proportions dwarfing my pint.

I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Except Alice was a 31 year old man and Wonderland was a pub.

I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Except Alice was a 31 year old man and Wonderland was a pub.

From there the evening’s festivities continued, resulting – inevitably perhaps – in some members of the group being a little worse for wear by nights end than others, but that’s a tale for another time. To their credit they all made it into work the following day. Myself included. Well done to Swansea City for a truly admirable journey of success and may the future bring more of the same. The parade was a great family event, on a par with the Olympic torch passing through Swansea, and also the perfect launching pad for our night of celebrations.

These Fucking Politicians.

Pasty prats. (Image created by Brian Adcock)

The following angry poem is meant as a release of my frustrations regarding the blatant corruption and insincerity, and worse, of our elected officials, specifically in this case the UK but I think the sentiment could be transposed to most nations.

These fucking Politicians.

These fucking politicians and their fucking lies,
A photo-op eating their subjects’ pies.

These fucking politicians and their harebrained schemes,
The big society’s not what it seems.

These fucking politicians and their media friends,
Cosy lunches and texts, to what end?

These fucking politicians protecting the banks,
Take the public’s money without even a thanks.

These fucking politicians, they have no shame,
Coerce their wife to take the blame.

These fucking politicians, don’t justify their expense,
Known henceforth for their embezzlement.

These fucking politicians, whoring their reach,
Yet values they hypocritically preach.

These fucking politicians taking from the vulnerable,
Spin some bullshit that they’re the real criminals.

These fucking politicians and their strategic distractions,
To keep us apart and in warring factions.

These fucking politicians the career hungry dogs,
Climbed to the top of the heap, self proclaimed demigods.

These fucking politicians, the many headed beast,
Cut one off, it’s quickly replaced.

Lest we forget these fucking politicians and their illegal wars,
Death toll rises, lack accountability at all.

These fucking politicians.
We’re all to blame.
These fucking politicians.
We need to change.

Image Source.

Bad Teacher, Very Bad Teacher!

It’s the overworked teacher’s turn for a kicking again.

Senior Cabinet meeting within Leinster House: Lads we need a sound bite to distract the people from the kicking they got in the budget. Umm … we could give the teachers another kicking I suppose.

Brendan Howlin, Irish Minister for Public Expenditure, has recently come out in the press – not like that stop sniggering – to deliver another kicking to a section of the public service. The objects of his ire on this occasion were teachers, more specifically, bad teachers and the necessity to remove them from their positions. Full disclosure here folks as I am a newly qualified teacher and as such, am fully in support of the removal of ‘bad’ teachers.

I support this on a purely selfish level, as the savage public services cuts have made it almost impossible to get a job in the career I returned to education in my mid-twenties to qualify for and also on a broader professional level. The position of teacher is far too important a position to be left to those who, have either lost whatever love they had for what is a vocation or who got into the job for all the wrong reasons. They are the same reasons which make public servants, teachers in particular, such easy targets for politicians hoping to score points after another savage budget. Job security, five-day work weeks, long holidays and general ignorance about what is required to survive and flourish in the field are the usual suspects that rear their heads when it is the teachers’ turn in the firing line.

I could bore you to death with the same arguments you’ll hear from any teacher defending themselves and their positions. We are in loco parentis for eight hours of the day; we are actors, counsellors and so much more. There are however a couple of elements of Minister Howlin’s statement which particularly grate.

The decision to send one’s children to ‘grinds’ (extra tuition outside of school) in an effort to improve their results falls on parents alone. To blame teachers for students taking grinds is a blatant example of ignoring a huge number of variables just to support your argument. Perhaps Minister Howlin has suddenly had selective amnesia and forgotten the last three budgets. Larger student teacher ratios and the removal of special needs assistants may also have had an effect. Perhaps it was the political culture whose short-term thinking saw them throw money at people instead of introducing the systemic and structural changes when we had the money to pay for them. Minister Howlin expects teachers to do more, for less and in more difficult circumstances. No problem Brendan, is there anything else while we’re at it?

The Teaching Council, to which I a pay a sizeable chunk annually to regulate my profession, has already put in place procedures, which are less than 2 years old, to deal with under performing teachers. This includes more visits to schools and more paperwork, such as detailed lesson plans and schemes of work, which teachers are required to provide at a moments notice to show just how prepared they are to take on the difficult task of educating children. This of course only scratches the surface of what teachers have to face, there are students for whom a full day of attendance in the school can be seen as a major victory. So what is so wrong with these provisions that would require a Minister of State to launch another attack? What exactly is it that he requires from teachers to justify their position?

My fear is that this is going to turn into a race to the bottom. The ‘data management’ style of brass tacks numbers will see teachers being judged on the results their students get. This is one of those things which seems very reasonable on the surface but, once delved deeper into, is the type of policy that ruins the lives of teachers and students alike. As I stated in my opening paragraph I am a newly qualified teacher and as such am in a prime position to impart how teachers are being taught in Ireland. One of the words that popped up with regularity during my training was ‘holistic’. Previously the utterance of this word would have sent my eyes rolling back into my head with a sharp intake of breath. This of course is because the word has been co-opted by individuals who believe in Homeopathy and other such hokum but as my course progressed the word was reclaimed and in the end I ended up defending my use of it to friends when talking about the education system in Ireland. We are being asked to help create well-rounded individuals, to focus of literacy and numeracy, to find ways of making our subjects relevant and interesting, to create an active and inclusive learning environment in an effort to move away from rote learning during which cross curricular links are forged, and all this with one eye on the needs of the economy. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? So a result driven system where judgements are made on a final grade do nobody any good and run directly in the face of how teachers are trained.

One would almost believe that the statement made by Minister Howlin was just an effort to distract the nation from more immediate problems. I am not alone in finding this political culture tiresome and insulting. The statement spurred me to write this piece on the difficult role teachers face, those that can get a job that is (grumble grumble), but perhaps the real issue is the inherent disrespect the government has for teachers and the difficult jobs they do, and indeed for everyone else in society; that they think taking a swipe at easy targets will distract us for a period while they muddle on in corruption and ineptitude serving their real bosses. This is the same political culture which sees people on social welfare squeezed and investigated while corporations pay minimal tax: the same culture which sees outrageous stories regards budget cuts leaked before the budget so when the cuts arrive they don’t seem so bad. I am not expecting miracles from our politicians just not to have our intelligence insulted.

Image Source.

On the run with Sanal Edamaruku

Yesterday evening I attended a talk, jointly hosted by the Humanist Atheist Society of the National University of Ireland, Galway and Atheist Ireland, from the fairly well known Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku. Mr Edamaruku is an academic and is the president of the unfortunately named Indian Rationalist Association (I.R.A). However, levity aside, Mr Edamaruku faces the unwelcome prospect of persecution in his home country of India. In spite of this, he spoke calmly and deliberately of his predicament.

He is currently in exile for his “provocation” of the Catholic church in Bombay, whereby through the act of explaining a so-called miracle involving sub-standard plumbing and a statue of Jesus, he incurred the wrath of a number of high-ranking bishops, not least “His Eminence” Oswald Gracias . As a consequence, the church has contrived to have Mr Edamaruku imprisoned  for his contravention of laws regarding blasphemy – laws which, no less, date back to the 19th century. The very real threat of three years in prison – and worse –  forced Sanal to flee his native country and he has sought refuge in Europe. He was abruptly cut off, indefinitely, from those dearest to him, while attending to the business of a lecture trail overseas. Nevertheless, despite the potential dangers he faces, he has vowed to return to India, saying, rather confidently, that he is on a “mission” against the prevalence of such archaic laws and other such superstitious practices. “The problem we have in India is that we have the 14th and 21st century coexisting,” he said.

His “mission” is what brought him to Ireland. While seeking support against ludicrous legislation in his own case, Edamaruku has simulataneously called on the Irish people to rid themselves of their own law against blasphemy, which prohibits the utterance or publication of “grossly abusive or insulting [material] in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, which causes “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”. As Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland noted, in closing, at the event, such a law strongly appears to “incentivize outrage”. Furthermore, Mr Edamaruku stressed that the Irish law against blasphemy was increasingly being used as a precedent on which to lay the foundation of an argument for a much more far-reaching law against blasphemy. Such a prospect is simply terrifying.

If the people of Ireland truly value human rights and equality, then it is imperative that they resolutely reject their most stringent and archaic laws, and lend their support to the plight of those who, like Sanal Edamaruku, are suffering their outrageous consequence.

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