Friday 10 June 2011

Why the Irish Blasphemy Law matters to everyone, not just atheists.

Pretty much everyone was nonplussed by the 2009 introduction of a blasphemy law in Ireland. It was downplayed as something that would never be used. But in this global age, unintended consequences can abound.

Since 1999, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has been putting resolutions before the UN on Defamation of Religion. These have been widely interpreted as an attempt to effectively create an international blasphemy law with an emphasis on Islam.

For example the Ten-year strategic action plan arising from the 2005 OIC Summit contains the following:

Article 7 (Combating Islamophobia)
1. Emphasize the responsibility of the international community, including all governments, to ensure respect for all religions and combat their defamation.
3. Endeavor to have the United Nations adopt an international resolution to counter Islamophobia, and call upon all States to enact laws to counter it, including deterrent punishments.

In 2011, with support declining as Western countries were more vocal in the dangers of this strategy, the OIC switched tactics to protecting believers rather than religion. 

The point here of course is that religions are not persons and as such do not have rights. Religions do not have a right to be not offended. Enshrining blasphemy in international law would allow religious groups and states to ride roughshod over freedom of expression everywhere. How blasphemy law works in Muslim countries should give us an idea of how such a law could be used.

But to my main point. The bizarre introduction of a blasphemy law in Ireland in 2009, which nobody wanted or was looking for, was equally bizarrely played down by the Fianna Fail government that introduced it, as being purposefully ineffectual and not worth getting excited about. Leaving aside why this law was introduced, the point I want to make is that we need to jealously guard our freedoms and not undermine them so thoughtlessly. This Irish blasphemy law was used, word for word, in part of the 2009 OIC resolution. So we find ourselves being used as ammunition in an attack on freedom of expression.

Article 36 of the Irish Defamation Act 2009 defines blasphemy as:

For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—
(a) he or she publishes or utters matter 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
(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

Pakistan in October 2009, on behalf of the OIC, made a proposal to the United Nations’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards with regard to “Discrimination based on Religion or Belief”.  It is composed of six points or articles and can be found here but the first article is as follows:

States Parties shall prohibit by law the uttering of matters that are 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

Notice anything? 

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