Blasphemy will surely quietly go the way of other quaint legal relics
Opinion: A disturbed British national, facing a death sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan was shot and seriously wounded in his jail cell
‘This week the Cabinet has at last agreed, at the instigation of the Constitutional Convention (above), to remove the concept from the Constitution by means of referendum.’ Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES
There was a classic Haughey moment during the 1961 Dáil debate on the Defamation Bill. Challenged by Patrick McGilligan, a TD who was also a professor of constitutional law at UCD, to provide a missing statutory definition for the concept of blasphemy, which is proscribed by the Constitution, Charles J, then Minister for Justice, prevaricated a while and then insisted simply that “Everybody knows what blasphemy is.”
Later, in another context, one would have described that as an Irish solution to an Irish problem.
“I should like ‘to see that put into the definition section,” McGilligan retorted. “‘Blasphemy is what everybody knows it to be.’”
Of course the problem was, and remained, that the concept was largely undefinable in legal terms – any definition would have involved privileging a religion, or religions and religious belief, in a way that would probably have been unconstitutional and certainly incompatible with the principles of a secular society. (That is not to say that “incitement to hatred” could not be prohibited, as will now be proposed.)
That legal lacuna was never remedied, and this week the Cabinet has at last agreed, at the instigation of the Constitutional Convention, to remove the concept from the Constitution by means of a referendum, probably next year. Undefinable, unenforceable, and hence largely harmless, it will surely quietly go the way of other quaint legal relics of another age.
That somewhat benign view of blasphemy was however put in a different perspective last week by a story from Pakistan, a country notorious for the widespread abuse of its blasphemy law, a brutal instrument of deeply sectarian intolerance.
A disturbed British national, Muhammad Asghar (70), facing a death sentence for blasphemy, was shot and seriously wounded in his jail cell in Rawalpindi by a prison guard who wanted to “kill the blasphemer”.
Ashgar was arrested in 2010 after being accused of distributing letters claiming he was a prophet sent by God. He was sentenced to death in January, and was in jail while the appeal was being processed.
His family has said he has a history of mental illness, including schizophrenia, and the sentence has been widely condemned internationally.
Ashgar will be lucky however to survive to hear the result of his appeal – to date over 50 people accused of blasphemy, both inside and outside jail, have been assassinated.
Two weeks ago a Pakistani academic accused of blasphemy was shot and killed in the southern port city of Karachi. Muhammad Shakil Auj, was the dean of Islamic studies at the state-run University of Karachi and a well-known progressive liberal in the field. He had complained to the police about death threats he had begun receiving after delivering a speech in the US in 2012.
A week earlier, a visiting religious scholar at the same Islamic studies department, Maulana Masood Baig, was also shot dead by unknown attackers.
Today 16 people are on death row, and another 20 are serving life sentences for the offence of blasphemy. Three Christians have been sentenced to death in the last few months. And lawyers and politicians who have spoken out against the law have been attacked, some killed. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and a vocal proponent of reform, was shot to death in 2011 by one of his elite police guards.
Worryingly blasphemy allegations have soared this year to record levels , according to the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies. Reports suggest claims are increasingly used to settle personal scores or grab property. The provisions of the law are heavily weighted in favour of the accuser, making defending oneself almost impossible. The government, despite strong international pressure, shows no inclination to repeal or reform themeasure.
Today 14 out of 20 countries in the Middle East and northern Africa criminalise blasphemy. Nine of 50 in the Asia Pacific, seven of 45 in Europe, and three of 48 in Sub-Saharan Africa also do so. Eleven of 35 nations in the Americas have blasphemy laws – including several states of the US.
Currently one 14-year-old boy is facing blasphemy charges in Pennsylvania, and a possibility of up to two years in jail, for putting up on facebook a photo of himself simulating oral sex with a statue of Christ – whether the judicial authorities, for taking the case, or the young man, for behaving like a teenage prat, are the greater idiots is a moot point. But he should not be going to jail , and certainly not on the basis of the sort of medieval law that icon of human rights Vladimir Putin has used to jail punk band Pussy Riot.
So if you are tempted, gentle reader, come the referendum next year, to vote against repeal, think twice. Consider a bit the company you will want us to be keeping.