Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Irish Blasphemy Law Applauded by some of the World's Most Repressive, Misogynisitc and Homophobic Countries

Since January 2010, it has been a criminal offence in the Irish Republic to make blasphemous remarks about any religion.Should you be prosecuted under the law you can face a fine of up to twenty five thousand Euros. The law defines blasphemy as publishing or uttering: "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." 

The law has been condemned widely by human rights groups, writers, journalists and artists as a retrograde step that seeks to prohibit freedom of speech and expression. The fact that the wording of the Irish law has been applauded by the Organisation of Islamic Co-Operation, a body that has as its members some of the most repressive and illiberal countries in the world, such as Iran and Pakistan, gives further credence to the charge that this law is not compatible with the values of a western liberal democracy. I spoke to Michael Nugent, the chairman for Atheist Ireland, an advocacy group that has been campaigning against the law, on his views on this legislation.

What are the main objections that Atheist Ireland has to this law?

The first thing is that it purports to protect religion, but it doesn't actually protect religion at all. What it does is  that it criminalises criticism of religion and does it in such a way by using the expression of outrage as the first test of whether something is blasphemous. It actually incentivises people to demonstrate outrage when what we should be doing is incentivising people to act in a more proportional manner when someone says something that is different to their religious beliefs. The second problem with this law, is that it gives religious beliefs priority over non-religious beliefs and protects religious beliefs in a way that it doesnt protect other beliefs. You don't find scientists or people in other areas of discourse saying they need laws that protect their beliefs. This is because they can defend their beliefs by means of rational argument. The third reason is that it has an impact internationally, particularly with the Islamic states using it to justify Islamic blasphemy laws by saying 'look here is a western country passing a blasphemy law in the twenty first century.' The fourth objection is that the reason it was supposed to have been implemented  is because the 1937 constitution requires a law against blasphemy, but that's not a reason to bring in a law against blasphemy, its a reason to change the constitution and bring it up to date with a modern pluralist democracy.

Has anyone been prosecuted under this law?

No. The day it came in to force Atheist Ireland published twenty five blasphemous statements with the stated intention that if we were prosecuted we would challenge the constitutionality of the law and if we weren't prosecuted it shows there is a strong case for it to be repealed in that if laws are not being implemented it brings the whole legislature in to disrepute. I think the government recognised early on that it was not going to be feasible to enforce it and they tried to back away from it almost immediately by putting in safeguards to try to create the impression that they never intended for it to be enforceable, which isn't the case. The original  version of the law had a one hundred thousand Euro fine and no safeguards. Although it hasn't been enforced, as the X-case showed in the Abortion debate, you can never tell how people are going to act in terms of enforcing laws and somebody might decide that their conscience is telling them they have to enforce this law.

What has been the reaction of the main religious groups in Ireland?

The only people to have come out and support it were some Muslim spokespersons.The Catholic church has kept their head down about it and didn't say anything. They are in a kind of strange position in that in Islamic countries where Catholics are the victims of blasphemy laws they are actually opposed to blasphemy laws and the fact that this law came out at the peak of their loss of moral authority over the child abuse scandals wasn't a great time for them to be considering  the blasphemy law.

That makes sense. It was probably not on their list of priorities with all the skeletons that were coming out of their closet at the time.

Is their broad opposition to this law amongst the various political parties or have you come across any reactionary conservative support for the law within government or within the various parties?

There's very little support for this law. One of our members did a walk from Cork to Donegal,to focus attention on the issue and to talk to people. He said he found hardly anybody that supported the law or anyone that would go on camera to say they supported it, but there was one very funny incident where he said he found one person who agreed their should be a law against blasphemy and the guy agreed to say why he supported the law on camera. So, he set up the camera and asked the guy, "Please tell us why you think there should be a law against blasphemy?" and the guy said, "I just dont think its right that a man should have two wives!"  Ha! Ha! So basically there is no one who understands the difference between bigamy and blasphemy who is in support of the new law.

One of the things I found most disturbing is that the Organisation of Islamic Co-Operation is using the exact wording of the Irish law as the model for a proposal at U.N. level to push for a normative principal in International Law to be adopted to encourage member states to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. Doesn't this make Ireland bedfellows with some of the most repressive, misogynisitc and homophobic countries in the world?
They are citing Ireland as best practice for blasphemy laws so we are worse than bedfellows.

So we are being applauded by Pakistan, a country where the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was murdered in 2011 by one of his own bodyguards for calling for the repeal of the blasphemy law, There were large public marches in support of the assassin, which included members of the legal profession who hailed him as a hero and called for him to be immune from prosecution.

They threw petals at him as he went to court.

One of the things I find hard to understand is that Fianna Fail and in particular, Dermot Ahern, the then Justice minister introduced this legislation and now they accept that it should be repealed. Their main argument was that there was a requirement under the constitution for their to be a blasphemy law. However, in that Fianna Fail are historically a very socially conservative right wing party do you think that might have been part of the impetus to bring in such a law?

If you accept the argument that Dermot Ahern made that we had to have a blasphemy law to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution then he could have just brought in a law that technically satisfied the Constitution with say a fine of one cent without it being a serious law, but instead he originally proposed  a law with a one hundred thousand Euro fine and no safeguards. The safeguards that were later brought in were proposed by the Labour Party, and this is a brilliantly Irish situation, after we lobbied the Labour Party, they then decided to oppose the law entirely. They decided that it was a bad idea to have a blasphemy law at all, no matter what the safeguards, so they withdrew their amendments to the bill that suggested certain safeguards. Then Fianna Fail said,'no you cant withdraw those amendments as they've already gone in to the bill so we are supporting those safeguards.'  Fianna Fail then adopted the safeguards that the Labour Party had withdrawn and that's how the current law came in to being.

What are these safeguards?

Well, intent  to blaspheme has to be proved and if you can prove that the blasphemous statement had artistic, political or academic merit you may be exempt. I cant remember the exact wording but you can look it up.

These are quiet nebulous and vague safeguards. Who and how does one decide whether any statement has such merit?

Indeed. There is a funny story about Senator Ronan Mullen who is quite the Catholic and was expected to support the blasphemy law, but he ended up opposing the law because the list of  exemptions, the things you could use as a defence, didn't include religious merit, so he was saying the law didn't allow religious people to blaspheme against other religions and therefore he couldn't support it.

Its like something out of a Monty Python sketch.

You should look up the Senate debate on the law its hilarious. We set up a mock religion called the Church of Dermotology to highlight our opposition to the blasphemy law and to protest against anybody who mocks our beliefs. We worship Dermot Ahern. Our core beliefs are that Dermot Ahern created the world out of nothing and that ice cream wafers are literally the body of Dermot Ahern. We have a facebook page. Check us out. If you look up the Senate record on the debate on the blasphemy law, a few of us were in the public gallery observing, you can read how Senator David Norris welcomed the prophet Michael Nugent in who was here from the Church of  Dermotology. In future generations there will be historians looking over the Senate records and wondering what the Church of Dermotology was. Its a great country!

1 comment:

  1. http://www.faithlessthebook.com/ It's in all major book stores from Oct 29th. Right now I'm saving up to pay the €250,000 fine for the expected charge of blasphemy that will come from outraged religious groups.