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November 14, 2013

Lessons of the Debate Over Ireland’s Blasphemy Law

Recently, Ireland’s Convention on the Constitution discussed removing the offense of blasphemy from Irish law. Currently, a person found guilty of publishing or uttering “blasphemous matters” can be fined up to 25,000 Euros ($34,000). A majority of the 100-member forum, composed of both politicians and civil society representatives, supported dropping the offense of blasphemy.

The Irish government has four months to respond to the recommendation.  Any changes will have to be approved by a referendum.  For several years, there has been widespread public discussion in Ireland on what to do about the blasphemy law. It’s encouraging that the proponents of removing of blasphemy as a criminal offense advocated an approach that respects a human rights approach, understanding that blasphemy laws do not protect individuals but rather open the door to abuses.

Their arguments have universal validity and should inform the global debate about the criminalization of speech deemed offensive to religion or religious symbols:

The Vagueness of Blasphemy Laws Allows Abuse

The 2009, Ireland’s Defamation Act struggled to give a more precise definition of the offense. It inserted the requirement that the alleged blasphemer had the intent to cause outrage among a substantial number of a religion’s adherents. This burden of proof makes it difficult to prosecute the offense.  The law also makes it necessary to prove that a reasonable person would not find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value in the substance of the alleged blasphemous material.

Human Rights First has reported on human rights abuses caused by the use of blasphemy laws around the world.  These laws are often vague and can be subject to abuse, either by the authorities or citizens who can accuse a fellow citizen of blasphemy with a personal complaint to the prosecutor. The concept is inconsistent with universal human rights standards, which protect the rights of individuals rather than abstract ideas or religions. In some cases, the penalty of the vaguely drafted laws can be life imprisonment or death—as in Pakistan. Those accused of blasphemy are frequently threatened or attacked even before any investigation. People take to the streets and violence stoked by religious extremists ensues.

Blasphemy laws have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities

The argument has been raised in the Irish press and it’s true. Blasphemy laws enable governments to restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion. Application of the laws can result in devastating consequences for religious minorities. This has been the case for Christians in Pakistan and Egypt, Ahmadi followers in Indonesia, and non-believers in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In many instances, officials fail to condemn abuses or to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable. And the police often fail to stop violence against religious minorities or to protect those endangered on account of such laws. The lack of police response creates a climate in which discrimination and violence proliferate.

The Right Approach: Fighting Hatred While Respecting Speech

In the past few years, several bodies of the United Nations have examined the relationship between freedom of expression and hate speech, especially in relation to religious issues. This is important in order to prevent growing violence in the world surrounding the question of blasphemy. After extensive consultation with governments and civil society, also with the active participation of experts around the world and the diplomatic presence of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, the Rabat Plan of Action was published by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in October 2012. This document outlines how blasphemy laws are seriously problematic.  Since 2011, a new process (dubbed the Istanbul Process) was launched as a result of resolutions adopted at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. The idea is to combat religious intolerance without restricting freedom of speech. This is a the right approach and sorely needed: governments can do much more to address religious tensions and to speak out against intolerance.  On the other hand, criminalizing blasphemy tends to exacerbate religious tensions.