When we hear about blasphemy these days, we usually think cases brought in Muslim countries or efforts by Muslim states to have defamation of religion banned in resolutions at international meetings such as the recent “Durban II” session in Geneva. The issue, which sparked violent protests in the Muslim world in 2006 after a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, has been presented as a kind of cultural dividing line between “the West” and “the Muslim world.” It’s not that simple… (Photo: Kabul protest against blasphemy death sentence for Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 31 Jan 2008/Ahmad Masood)
Just look at what’s happened in Ireland this week. The government proposed a new law against “blasphemous libel,” provoking criticism that the move would be old-fashioned at best and an outrageous curtailment of free speech at worst. Were the traditionally Catholic Irish taking a page from the diplomatic strategy of Muslim countries? Were the bishops trying to flex their dwindling muscles? The Irish Times story reporting the plan gave no motive for it but wrote: “At the moment there is no crime of blasphemy on the statute books, though it is prohibited by the Constitution.”
Not surprisingly, Roy Brown, chief representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Geneva, reacted by saying it was “totally mind-boggling that a European government should even consider such a dangerous idea given that EU countries — now supported by the United States — have for years been fighting tooth and nail at the United Nations in Geneva and New York against almost identical proposals from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to get a global ban on ‘defamation of religion’.”
But there was more to the story. As Justice Minister Dermot Ahern wrote in an Irish Times article today, there is an existing piece of legislation dating back to 1961 that calls for punishments up to seven years imprisonment. Ireland’s constitution requires some form of punishment of blasphemy and the new law would decrease the penalty involved to a fine of up to 100,000 euros. Abolishing the crime of blasphemy altogether would require a constitutional amendment and a referendum, which Ahern says would be too costly and distracting for a country busy fixing Europe’s worst public finances. (Photo: Dermot Ahern visits the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, 31 Jan 2007/Eliana Aponte)
Under Ahern’s proposals, blasphemous material would only be prosecutable if it is “grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by a religion,” causes actual outrage among adherents of that religion and there is intent to cause outrage. “Such intent was not previously required;” he noted in his article.