Anti Blasphemy Laws – Pakistan, Greece and Australia

Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 7 comments

We hear a lot of talk lately about the call for Anti-Blasphemy laws to be formalised to make blasphemy a crime internationally. The United Nations are debating this once again, mostly as a knee-jerk reaction against the poorly made (and probably divisive) YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims”. But we see this call coming from two camps, and for two different reasons. The cry from Islamic groups and clerics supports this act as a way to defend Islam against being criticised. But the calls from the UN come as a way to try to placate the Islamic community, and stem from fear of reprisals.

From the outside it seems Islam is quite sensitive about criticisms or parodies of their prophet Mohammed, and are eager to fight back against any examples of this. It also seems that, from the scenes we see over and over and over again, this is the “way things are done these days”; Someone makes a film, writes a book or draws a cartoon that may be seen as offensive, and the Islam is in uproar and demanding blood.

At times it seems that Islam only makes things worse by reacting in such a violent and disproportionate manner. And at times it seems that the Islamic religion is just waiting poised for the next insult to be hurled at it so its adherents can call for blood. Of course for many adherents to Islam this is far from the case. Just like in any religion or  group, there are the people who are hot-headed and quick to fight, and there are those who just want to get on with their lives. As we saw with many Islamic groups worldwide condemning the Islamic riots and the assassination of the US ambassador, much of the Islamic community can see how futile the riots are, and how “over-the-top” reactions calling for the beheading of “all those who insult the prophet” do nothing but damage for the image of Islam in the West.

Of course, it’s not Islam itself that is to blame for these reactions. These reactions stem from many factors including an attitude among the adherents that violence is the way to solve problems, socio-economic factors in Islamic countries, and the tendency for the leaders of Islam to call its adherents to war by citing that their religion is under a real and present threat. I can understand, given the way people view their personal and religious beliefs, that those who believe are keen to defend them. But it’s the nature of the doctrine in Islam that makes it so volatile; People who mock Islam must be out to death.

The knee-jerk reaction of the UN to call for anti-blasphemy laws once again comes from the fear of this very volatile attitude shared by many extremist Muslims. If the anti-blasphemy laws were brought into effect it only serves to formalise and condone the actions and over-reactions that many have already undertaken. Anti-blasphemy laws are already in place in may countries of the world including Pakistan and Greece, and we have seen (particularly in Pakistan) the laws being enacted against people who are accused of blaspheming against religions.

In the case of Pakistan we see how the law is enacted all to frequently and sometimes with the intention of ridding areas of conflicting religions. This article by Ali Salman Alvi in The Pakistani Times from September 29 of this year shows just how out-of-control the situation in Pakistan has become:

Be it the barbarous public lynching of two brothers in Sialkot that left us with our heads hung in shame or the deplorable murder of the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer by his own security guard and the subsequent glorification of the killer as a hero of Islam, we never cease to stoop low. In July this year, a mob of more than 2,000 enraged people snatched a mentally unstable man accused of burning pages from the Holy Quran from police custody and burnt him alive in Chanighot area of Bahawalpur. I feel sorry for the psychiatrists who try to look into the reasons behind our intolerant behaviour of going violent on little things since this mental disorder of ours is not only incomprehensible, it is rather incurable. How did torching that man strengthen Islam? What purpose has it served? Where is this frenzy driving us? What message are we sending to the world? We better figure it out sooner rather than later.

In the latest development in the Rimsha Masih case, the investigating officer has submitted an interim charge sheet before a trial court claiming that the complainant, prayer leader Khalid Jadoon Chishti, was in fact guilty of tampering with the evidence by adding Holy pages in the bag Rimsha had been carrying. There was no evidence or witness to prove that the blasphemy-accused girl was seen desecrating the Quran.

He goes on to talk of the way the laws have been abused by Pakistani people:

Laws are made on the basis of creating order and promising peace where governance is challenged, whereas statistics suggest that the blasphemy law has only polarised our society. As per a group of Pakistani Christians, only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in all in un-partitioned India and Pakistan from 1927 to 1986. The National Commission for Justice and Peace says that in the last 25 years, 1,058 cases of blasphemy were registered. Of the accused, 456 were Ahmadis, 449 were Muslims, 132 were Christians and 21 were Hindus. Several sections of Pakistan’s Criminal Code comprise its blasphemy laws. During Ziaul Haq’s regime, another addition to the blasphemy statutes was legislated in 1986. Section 295-C reads: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Section 295 has gradually become a handy legal mace to settle measly personal scores, threaten rival families for pecuniary gains and practise myopic versions of Islam, predominantly in small towns and rural areas. Judges in the lower courts usually come under pressure to convict the accused charged under the statute.

This is the fear I have; Anti-blasphemy laws, even if given as an edict from the United Nations, will be used and abused by people for their own ends, be they personal squabbles, political ambitions or religious xenophobia. Not to mention that anti-blasphemy laws are in direct conflict with the notion of free-speech.

Greece also has anti-blasphemy laws in place. Recently an unnamed man has been charged with blasphemy for his caricaturisation of an Orthodox Christian monk named Elder Paisios. The unnamed man is now being held under charges of blasphemy for creating a Facebook page which mocked the monk, calling himself Geron Pastitios, a Greek pasta dish in the same lighthearted spirit as atheists have been using the Pastafarian banner. Under the Greek anti-blasphemy laws, it is illegal to “publicly and maliciously and by any means blaspheme[s] God“, and punishment can be up to two years imprisonment. Yet no claims have been brought using this law except in cases where the Orthodox church is concerned. In the Twittersphere, the hashtag #FreeGeronPastitios has been used to show support for the man.

As I have mentioned on this blog before, there are is no “free speech” clause in the Australian constitution. In fact, in Victoria, the state I live in, we actually have a law which prohibits the mockery of religion. Called the “Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001“, the law is designed:

(a) to promote racial and religious tolerance by prohibiting certain conduct involving the vilification of persons on the ground of race or religious belief or activity;

(b) to provide a means of redress for the victims of racial or religious vilification.

However in its enactment it has been shown to only be used to stifle free speech as it pertains to religion. Protecting against racism, as the law’s intention states is a great thing and should be applauded, but protecting a person’s religion from criticism gives rise to a very slippery slope, for at what point does one draw the line between deserved criticism and blasphemy?

Given the laws of this state, if someone saw fit, I could be held liable for writing this blog. I criticise religion all the time. I also criticise countries for their laws, cultures for their practices, and individuals for their actions. At what point does my right to express myself become unlawful? Is it the point where I criticise the way a religion is enacted, or is it the point where I single out individuals for their actions?

Anti-blasphemy laws go against everything that democracies stand for. Democracy is based upon the idea that every person has the right to an opinion and can act upon that opinion, and if my opinion is seen to be going against the tide, or that someone gets offended, as long as I’m not causing undue harm or bullying someone into submission, it should be my right to do so. Once we take away the right to air concerns about a religion, government or cultural practice, we lose the right to speak. Do we really want to see world where dissent is a crime?

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  1. We might expect UN legislation (or local laws) to deter violence against blasphemers except any would-be offender is raging AGAINST the machine.

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  2. Martin, you make great points regarding how any blasphemy laws may (or likely will) be abused by the religious to persecute others. Of course the old atheist adage “Blasphemy is victimless crime,” is likely to annoy or insult the religious, but it is not untrue. Who is harmed by such statements or mockery? Certainly not the religious except in their own heads. We can dismiss the idea that whatever supreme being(s) being insulted would actually be harmed by such speech or mockery as they either do not exist or do not care (at least I would assume they should not should they exist).  
    Another point I like to make about this is similar to your point of the potential for abuse via blasphemy laws. It is the height of intellectual cowardice. It assumes one’s worldview is correct above all others; which of course is a central characteristic of religion. It is a means for those in power to silence others. What better way to appeal to the masses then to claim religious offense? The majority of the world’s population would sympathize. As we saw with the Islamic riots in response to a poorly made movie designed to inflame Muslims, the liberals theists of the Western world are quick to take the side of the aggrieved. They do this without thinking.
    The concept of blasphemy is a tool of religious privilege. Dissent, criticism, protest, etc. of a religion (or really most anything) can all be silenced via  any blasphemy law.

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    • @Steve Barry “Who is harmed by such statements or mockery? Certainly not the religious except in their own heads.”
      I’m not sure that argument works because if I am harmed then that discomfort is quite literally “only” in my own head. Communications that harm (blasphemies) cannot be harmful in any other way than subjectively**. 
      A more charitable for of the argument seems to be; ought a democratic State be permitting its blasphemers to intentionally hurt other citizen’s feelings?
      Here I think @KingsleyAimless KingsleyAimless offers a sensible approach: “Give religions exactly the same legal protections from criticism, mockery and ridicule that are given to political parties.”
      The minute we decide that pious groups ought have more legal protections than irreligious groups is the moment the UN starts singing from the hymn book of monotheism.
      (**Though one might philosophise; if a prophet is drawn in a forest where nobody can see it then it in fact makes a blasphemous sound to some all-seeing-ear)

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  3. Nice Blog post Marty.
    It should be noted that blasphemy is not only a victimless crime, it is a fundamental Human Right. Without the freedom to blaspheme, the rights to Freedom of Conscience, Freedom of (& from) Religion and Freedom of Expression all get whittled away to such extremes that they become close to meaningless.
    Ignoring the atheist perspective it is often impossible for adherents of any religion to promote their own view point without blaspheming others. A Muslim automatically blasphemes Christianity by denying the divinity of Christ. A Christian automatically blasphemes Islam by asserting the divinity of Christ. Many Catholic ideas are blasphemous to many Protestant denominations, vice-versa, and many Orthodox ideas are blasphemous to both. In Islam we have similar divides. Should Aisha or Ali be celebrated or vilified? You will get a pair of very different answers depending on if you ask a Sunni or a Shia.
    All this is only looking at the issue of blasphemy from the view point of the dominant trends of the two largest religions. Do we also include criticism of Guru Nanak in our blasphemy laws? I have no idea by what criteria I could unwittingly blaspheme Zoroaster! Should the British high court be charged with blasphemy because it ruled in 1988 that Scientology is a cult?
    Blasphemy has to be a fundamental human right because it not being so can only lead to chaos or tyranny. Give religions exactly the same legal protections from criticism, mockery and ridicule that are given to political parties. After all, both religions and political parties are nothing more than a collection of ideas and the people who subscribe to them.

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