No place for blasphemy law


IT IS tempting to think of punishment for blasphemy as a mediaeval anachronism. In fact, it is very much a contemporary reality. The Pakistani Supreme Court recently upheld a judgment that the only fit punishment for blasphemy is death. In Afghanistan, the journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh received such a sentence last year for distributing an article critical of the status of women within Islamic societies. In Sudan British teacher Gillian Gibbons was convicted of insulting Islam by allowing a child to give the name Mohammed to a teddy bear. As an instrument of repression, the charge of blasphemy is very much in vogue.

All of which pushes the decision of Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern to propose legislation on the crime of “blasphemous libel” beyond the realms of mere misjudgment and into those of dangerous folly. An amendment to the Defamation Bill would outlaw the deliberate publishing or uttering of anything that is deemed by members of any religion to be “grossly abusive or insulting” to anything that they hold to be sacred. Such speech or writing would be punishable by a fine of up to €100,000.

We should be clear that blasphemy laws have nothing to do with the protection of religious freedom. The founders of most of the world’s major religions were regarded in their own times as blasphemers against the then-established spiritual truth. Jesus Christ himself was, according to the Christian Gospels, tried for blasphemy by the Jewish judiciary, the Sanhedrin. One of the first Christian martyrs, Saint Stephen, was stoned to death for blasphemy. Given the diversity of religious faith, it is almost axiomatic that one person’s sacred truth can be another’s gross insult to God. For the State to legislate against such subjectively perceived insults is to take sides in spiritual and intellectual disputes that are none of its business.

What the State should do – protect people from discrimination or incitement to hatred on religious grounds – is already done through our laws. Anything else is an absurdity, a crank’s charter that makes an ass of the law and a censor of the State. This is why, in 1991, the Law Reform Commission said that a law of blasphemous libel has no place “in a society which respects freedom of speech”. It is why, just last year, the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recommended that the current (extremely vague) prohibition of blasphemy be deleted from the Constitution.

Instead of following this eminently sensible advice, the Minister has chosen to regard himself as being under an obligation to legislate for that ill-framed constitutional ban. This position might be more convincing if the Minister felt himself similarly obligated in relation, for example, to the X case constitutional judgment on abortion – an area in which the State has steadfastly refused to legislate. It is, however, the height of folly to propose that there is a constitutional imperative to bring in bad laws for which there has been no substantial public demand. If Mr Ahern really feels the need to make Irish law on blasphemy coherent, he should move for a constitutional amendment to get rid of it altogether.