Anti Blasphemy Laws – Pakistan, Greece and Australia
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:
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:
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:
(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?