Free speech, freedom of discussion, freedom of debate, freedom of criticism and inquiry are valued aspects of modern society. "Blasphemy laws are an anachronism" because of the damage they do to good governance - they are "widely abused. Banning words or arguments which one group finds offensive does not lead to social harmony. On the contrary, it gives everyone an incentive to take offence - a fact that opportunistic politicians with ethnic-based support are quick to exploit". But those concepts are disregarded by some religious groups who instead wish to maintain a firm hold on converts. Christian and Islamic laws against blasphemy, when at their most extreme, are equal in severity and strictness. Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "prohibition against blasphemy" as one of the three most dangerous manifestations of organized religion1. Not surprisingly, both Christianity and Islam have held that conversion attempts, and converting away from the religion, are punishable crimes. That has often meant punishment by death. In the Christian Bible the punishment for blasphemy is stoning (Lev. 24:16), and in the Islamic Qur'an Sura 4:48 says that Allah does not forgive blasphemers, although thankfully most Christians in developed countries no longer observe the harsher instructions from the Bible. Many Islamic institutions consider blasphemy and apostasy (the leaving of Islam) to be the same thing, therefore the punishment for apostasy, which is death, can be given to blasphemers. Much of the advance of intellectual freedom and human rights has been gained in opposition to religious institutions and communities.
“Islamic fundamentalists insist that tolerance is not for them, that non-Muslims must not be allowed to proselytize in their societies, that Islam's followers may not exit the 'true' religion, and that blasphemy is to be punished severely. As it happens, Western Christian civilization insisted on much the same for most of its first two millennia. St. Augustine, citing his favorite text ('Compel them to come in,' Luke 14:16-23), advocated death for heretics. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, heretics 'by right... can be put to death and despoiled of their possessions... even if they do not corrupt others, for they are blasphemers against God.”
"Are Human Rights Universal?" by Thomas M. Franck (2001)2
In a democratic world where moral values and fairness are endorsed as part of just society, it is important that the state does not support one religion and enforce its values on those who don't consent to that religion. In other words; there are two ways you can approach blasphemy. The first is that you treat all religions fairly, and you make it illegal to blaspheme against any religion. The second is that you abolish the concept of blasphemy. The problem with the first method is that there are hundreds of religion with all kinds of absurd, irrational and heartfelt issues that would be deemed "blasphemous". If it was possible to enforce it would lead to massive & impractical restrictions on everyone. Everyone would always be blaspheming against some facet of some religion all the time. Even if we made it so that intent to blaspheme was a requirement for conviction, it would not be right in a free society to enforce blasphemy laws for hundreds of religions upon the populace. Clearly, abolition of blasphemy laws is the only sensible and moral path.
The freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of belief all mean that it must be possible to criticize, analyse, question and debate religious ideas. And as part of this, as fair game in the competition between ideas, even the ridicule of concepts and ideas must be permissable. Racism and prejudice are wrong (and sometimes illegal) because it is wrong to suppress people and harm individuals, but it is never wrong to question concepts and ideas. Free speech does (and should always) trump religious protectionism
Religious groups have always been the greatest opposers of free speech and the main form which this opposition takes is their stance against "blasphemy", which is often defined so widely as to be an instrument of theocracy. But two things should be taken into account that show us that their stance is not so simple. Firstly, when it comes to free speech, minority religions tend to campaign for it even if the same religion fights against it in countries where they have influence. And secondly, religions will claim they have a right to proselytise and convert others into their own faith. But many organized religions fight, wherever they have the power to do so, against the rights of others attempt to deconvert their own members. Both these things show that most religions' stance on blasphemy and anti-freedom-of-speech is more a matter of power politics than of eternal doctrine.
The suppression of free speech is often done in the attempt to stifle free thought. I.e., if thinking about certain questions is unwanted by a religious or political oppressor, then, they are likely to censor speech in order to prevent the spread of free thought. This bears out in international statistics, and a summary of worldwide human rights by the International Humanist and Ethical Union found that "the countries with the worst records on freedom of thought are the countries with the worst records on all human rights"4.
Source:"Freedom of Thought" by IHEU (2012)4
Ancient Greece was polytheistic and polycultural: many different communities worshipped many different gods. Various cults and movements dawned and dwindled over time. In this respect, the Roman Empire was civilized, tolerant7 and peaceful (as much as was possible, given how many problems with Human governance had not yet been resolved). But occasionally the mood changed, especially when the growth of atheism throughout the empire offended someone with enough power to react. 2500 years ago...
“... in the criminal law of Athens we meet with the term asebeia - literally: impiety or disrespect towards the gods. [...] From about the beginning of the Peloponnesian War to the close of the fourth century b.c., there are on record a number of prosecutions of philosophers who were tried and condemned for denial of the gods. [...] But after the close of the century we hear no more of such trials.7 [...]
There existed in Athens, engraved on a bronze tablet and set up on the Acropolis, a decree of the people offering a reward of one talent to him who should kill Diagoras of Melos, and of two talents to him who should bring him alive to Athens. The reason given was that he had scoffed at the Eleusinian Mysteries. [...] The date of this decree is given by a historian as 415 b.c. [...]
In Rome they did not possess, as in Athens, a general statute against religious offences [but] vigorous police authority [was used] against movements which threatened the Roman official worship, but it was done at the discretion of the administration and not according to hard-and-fast rules.”
"Atheism in Pagan Antiquity" by Anders Björn Drachmann (1922)8
Thankfully, charges of blasphemy in the Roman Empire were rare, due to cultural tolerance. Religions that followed - Christianity and then Islam, no longer tolerated a plurality of worship and had long-lasting negative effects on religious belief for a long period of time. It wasn't until the advent of Human Rights that the balance was restored.
Christendom has reacted in mixed ways to free speech. Countries that were historically Christian have often censored whatever mediums established churches could control. The British Board of Film Censors was much-criticized for its Christian bias since its founding in 1912 when it banned film-makers from directly depicting Christ at all. Many other films were similarly curbed and prohibited for infringing upon Christian sensibilities. These bans lasted decades. Similar restrictions existed in America too. Liberalisation began in the 1960s in the developed world, but that decade still saw Spanish actor Enrique Irazoqui 15 months hard labor in Spain for portraying Jesus in 1964.9.
Aside from film and television entertainment in the 20th century, Christian institutions also reacted badly to other historical innovations in mass media. Christian authorities burned and banned the first English-language Bible (the Tyndale Bible) that was destined for the masses because it would replace the Latin ones (that only rare educated priests could read). They feared the masses would come to question clergy and debate scripture for themselves. There were warning signs that Christianity would take the route of oppressor where it could: it took a few hundred years, in the Second Council of Nicaea in 787CE, for an official declaration to be made that (religious) artistic images were allowed at all after a long period spent in suspicion of imagery in general10.
But Christian censorship didn't last and (after several hundred years of censorship) Westerners in most countries can view a full spectrum of portrayals of Jesus exists on film, and read and write whatever books they wish, with no effective religious groups opposing their appearance. But progress isn't yet absolute. In "Greece, Ireland or Poland, blasphemy laws allowing fines and imprisonment may lead to prosecution or have a deterrent effect on journalists, academics, artists and other citizens which may amount to self-censorship"11. Thankfully however, Europe in general recovered from its era of Christian theocracy. A few countries such as Austria, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands still have blasphemy laws but they are no longer used11. The UK's blasphemy law - famous for its disuse - was abolished in 2008 after a Christian pressure group tried to revitalise it in their fight against homosexuality12. Thankfully, most democracies are now careful to avoid allowing religious communities to use censorship as a way of forcing their beliefs upon others.
Anti-homosexuality: Christians have been particularly demanding in their use of blasphemy laws to censor homosexuality, even in modern times. The USA continues to suffer from many successful campaigns by Christian lobby groups seeking to ban material in schools that promotes tolerance of LGBT folk or that mentions homosexuality. In Greece in 2012 three actors were arrested for playing parts in a play that featured a gay Jesus11. The UK's blasphemy law - famous for its disuse - was abolished in 2008 after a Christian pressure group tried to revitalise it in their fight against homosexuality12. In Brazil in 2019, a protest by millions of Catholics saw a Netflix film banned for portraying a gay Jesus13 - this came after homophobic president Jair Bolsonaro's long campaign against homosexuality, encouraging many Christians to become more extreme: the film producers' offices were attacked with molotov cocktails13. Things have changed over the previous two generations: since the establishment of Human Rights, Christian communities in most developed countries are finding it harder to censor material, and public opinion is moving towards the rejection of the concept of blasphemy and the acceptance of non-heteronormative media.
The concepts of free speech and freedom of belief are not acceptable to Islamic states. Their concept of blasphemy is absolute: no-one is allowed to criticize or question Islam, nor to attempt to convert Muslims away from their religion. They are allowed to preach to others, but, not the other way around. Their concept of "defamation of religion" boosts the idea of blasphemy to such as extent that many other rights are trampled.
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Islamic censorship is still rife in home countries. It includes some very heavy-handed restrictions on access to the Internet. Even in the 21st century, printed material and books are censored on their religious and scientific content if it is deemed to be "unIslamic". Simple things such as TV dramas do not escape the religious censors14. Pakistan is infamous for the frequency at which people are arrested under its blasphemy laws15.
Medieval-minded Muslims do not restrict their wrath to those who actually believe the same way they do. Salmon Rushdie is famous as a victim of Islamic international censorship, now having spent many years in hiding as a result of publishing a work of fiction that featured Muhammad. Anywhere on the Internet and across the world, individuals can become the focus of angry imams. The Internet has partially enabled Muslims in strict countries to obtain more information about the world, but, it has also opened up the world to the demands of strict Muslims.
"Fundamentalism" by Steve Bruce (2008)16
"Islamic sensibilities" is the phrase often given to the superstitions of the Muslim world, of a result of which we see outrage-after-outrage against non-Muslims. What might be a small-scale and meaningless act, which harms no-one, can be magnified to an International incident beyond all reasonableness, if it happens to be something that angers Muslims:
“In a morning-long debate on traditional values at the Human Rights Council on Tuesday 22 March 2011, the Pakistani delegate, speaking on behalf of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was allowed by the president to overrun his allotted three minute by a further seven in order to express his outrage at an incident reported just that morning. Was it the massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Damascus? No. The killing of peaceful demonstrators in Yemen or Bahrain? No. His diatribe was against the burning of a copy of the Quran in Florida. Read more.”
Saudi Arabia is as infamous as Pakistan for its deadly serious approach to blasphemy, against a backdrop of general religious intolerance and barbarism. For example in 2002 it was reported that Saudi Arabia's government began denying access to websites containing general religious content on Christianity, Islam, Paganism, Judaism and Hinduism18. This, like other moves in the region, is designed to keep Muslim populations' access to information limited, so that they will remain steadfast in the "correct" form of Islam as judged by the authorities.
“No fly appears too small to warrant swatting. Hamza Kashgari, a young blogger, fled to Malaysia after posting provocative comments about the Prophet Muhammad. The government applied all available diplomatic pressure to have him returned. Emboldened senior clerics are asking for Mr Kashgari to be executed for blasphemy.”
The Economist (2012)19
Death and Murder
Death threats for blasphemy have had fatal consequences too many times. The fear that this engenders in liberals is used to the political advantage of Islamic extremists. Iranian lawyer Ahmad Kasravi was murdered in court whilst defending himself against the accusation of 'attacking Islam'. The same group of Muslims killed the Iranian Prime Minister Haji-Ali Razmara. In 1994 Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel-prize winning Egyptian writer, was stabbed in 1994 after accusations of blasphemy even while he was under police protection (he was injured so badly, he could hardly write and spent most of his remaining life hiding in his lawyer's office).20. Since 2013 in Bangladesh a horrible spate of killings of freethinkers, secularists and liberals has occurred21. It began with a march of tens of thousands of Muslims on the capital, demanding that the government itself increase censorship of "anti-Muslim" content. Students, community leaders and University professors alike have been hacked to death with machetes as a result of putting content online that is pro-science, pro-secularist, anti-war crimes, or which advocate LGBT tolerance. One extremist group openly published a list of 84 of their targets and in 2016 Apr the rate of murders increased to one a week. The Bangladesh government has done very little to curb the extremists. Murders for blasphemy against Islam do not just occur in Muslim counties; there is a long and unfortunate history of the same occurring in Europe and elsewhere - Theo van Gogh was killed in Amsterdam by a Dutch Moroccan Muslim for making a film criticizing Islam's attitude towards women.
The Islamic push is that anything that questions Islam, ridicules Islam, mentions Islam unfavourably, or seeks to convert Muslims away from Islam, is 'blasphemous' and deeply offensive - so much so, that all equality and human rights must be suspended until the 'offence' is punished and stopped. Such ridiculous one-sided activism is a threat to the democratic world and all civilized people. There is hope of course - the stance of Muslims towards civility is no less horrendous than "Christian sensibilities" during the Dark Ages, and, the vast majority of Christians no longer subscribe to such barbarianism. Hence, there is eventual hope for the Muslim world too.
The 57 Islamic States in the United Nations (UN) are organized into the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). For 12 years, until 2011, the OIC ran a long and well-funded campaign against free speech at the UN, in particular when it came to women's rights and the Human Rights records of Islamic countries. The campaign was primarily directed against the Human Rights Council, and promoted the concept of preventing the defamation of religion, and was used as a tool to silence critics, rather than to protect freedoms. At every turn they have been (so far) repelled by those who consider equal rights, religious freedom, and freedom of speech, to be the more important principles than protected religious ideas - i.e., Human Rights protect people and for good reason, but, religious theories and beliefs are not people and do not need to be protected. The avoidance of causing offence simply is not important enough to warrant the curbing of freedom of speech, especially when it comes to discussing Human Rights. In 2011 they "finally appeared to back down, in response to successful opposition by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and other NGOs"23.
By the 2010s, the defamation of religion campaign had become farcical: everyone knew its true nature (Islamic powermongering disguised as international outrage), but, time and time again the OIC would find new ways of trying to push the concept upon the rest of the world. The problems with it were numerous. By definition, a "religion" can't be protected by Human Rights because it isn't a Human. The Islamic countries that attempted to limit free speech over the 12-year campaign were acting to protect their religion, but also did not make any attempts to curb anti-semitic publications in their own countries, some of which comes from the governmental and institutional level24. Finally, the over-use of "the Islamophobia" card became so wearisome that even their lingering allies in the endeavour, such as the Catholic Church, were embarrassed by the campaign.
By 2008 a collection of Islamic states had played the "Islamophobia" card so frequently at United Nations debates to stifle criticism of Islamic governments and culture that infringe of human rights, that the IHEU had to specifically tell the Human Rights Council that the concept of Islamophobia itself "is unhelpful and misleading, wrongly implying that any criticism of Islam is based on irrational fear and must lead automatically to hatred of Muslims"25. Such attempts at silencing criticism is incompatible with free speech, especially when such a forum is being used to raise awareness of human rights abuses.
“Growing opposition to the concept of 'defamation of religion'
The tide really does seem to be turning in the debate on combating defamation of religion -- even to the point where there are hopes among some delegates that the concept will soon be buried, at least in the Human Rights Council. Following attacks by France and Belgium last week on the notion of defamation of religion, several NGOs joined the attack on Thursday with several strong statements. The Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies with Article 19, the European Center for Law and Justice, and Center for Inquiry in a joint statement with IHEU were among those who weighed in.
IHEU speaks out (cautiously) against OIC censorship at UN
Following the successful attempts by the Islamic States at the 7th and 8th sessions of the Human Rights Council in March and June to silence any criticism of Sharia Law and the linking of certain abuses of human rights, such as the stoning of women, to Islam, IHEU main representative, Roy Brown, struck back at the 9th session on 19 September  with a statement on the human rights of women. He argued that 'No State should be permitted to hide behind tradition, culture or religion in order to justify any abuse of women's human rights,' adding 'It must be possible here to freely exercise the right to freedom of expression in order to defend the human rights of all, including women, and to expose abuse, whatever the attempted justification.
The IHEU position on defamation of religion was strongly supported on 23 September 2008 in a statement to the Human Rights Council prepared by Rabbi Francois Garai of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Egypt tried to have the statement ruled out of order on the grounds that 'Nobody can discuss the basic tenets of any religion in this Council.' In other words, a Jewish Rabbi ... was not qualified to discuss the basic tenets of Judaism!”
“A vote on 'defamation' on March 26th which [...] was passed. [...] The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a lobby group which co-ordinated the appeal, says the resolution is part of an effort by Islamic governments to establish a new definition of human rights which stresses the immunity of faiths from criticism, not the protection of individuals from persecution.”
The Economist (2009)27
The long campaign did not surface only at the United Nations, but at various regional interfaith meetings too. The Economist reported on one orchestrated event in Malaysia in 2008:
“Participants in inter-faith gatherings do sometimes run into real questions, that make a difference to the world at large. One such is how, if at all, freedom of speech can be reconciled with the Muslim demand for a ban on public statements or cultural products that offend Islamic sensibilities. At this week's meeting in Malaysia, that question was addressed in a way that frightened the relatively few participants whose understanding of civil rights was rooted in a Western, liberal world-view.
Speaker after speaker called for some formal, internationally agreed restriction on the defamation of religion. 'I can never accept that freedom of speech is morally right when it offends my faith.' said Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior Saudi official (and former head of the country's intelligence service). [...]
Fuelling all such discussion is the unavoidable fact that in an age of instant communications, offences to Muslim sensitivity, such as the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, published in a Danish newspaper, can easily trigger a global chain reaction, causing everything from murderous riots in Pakistan to a collapse of European exports to Muslim countries.”
The Economist (2008)28
The clout of the OIC and regional Islamic organisations means that the rest of the world must be in a state of near-constant vigilance, reacting quickly and sternly to future, often sneaky, attempts to shuffle in defamation of religion laws at various levels of national and international law.
“The Council of Europe passed a resolution last week calling on member states to repeal all laws relating to blasphemy. It also said that religious groups must accept that in a free society their activities and doctrines cannot be protected from criticism and open examination. [...]
The resolution, which was passed with a large majority in Strasbourg, said that "criticism of religious groups should be tolerated in democratic societies." However, the council put a limit on religious criticism and freedom of opinion: it was not allowed to incite hatred, disturb the public order or be targeted at members of religious groups.
The NSS has been active in lobbying the Council of Europe on freedom of expression and our Director, Keith Porteous Wood, chaired a Council of Europe session on this topic at the French Senate as part of the process which led to this excellent outcome. Keith Porteous Wood commented: "Freedom of expression is the bedrock of democracy, indeed of our civilisation. The Council of Europe stands out among international organisations in recognising the potential damage to freedom of expression from religion and not caving in to the huge pressure for massively extended blasphemy laws. If only the United Nations and, to a lesser extent, the European Union were as far-sighted in this respect."”
Stemming from the Middle Ages, the UK retained its blasphemy laws until they were abolished in 2008 in England and Wales. They were infamous for only protecting Christianity, specifically the Church of England. From 1922 to 1977 there were no prosecutions31. Two new cases then sealed their fate. The first was R. v Lemon (1979), raised by Christian lobbyists offended that a poem about Jesus was published in a gay magazine. The blasphemy laws were considered unenforceable and they faded from memory again. But in 2008, the public were surprised to find the anachronistic concept of blasphemy on the news when another Christian pressure group tried to revitalise it in a new fight against homosexuality. The legal institution found this to contradict British values and European Human Rights Law. The result is that on 2008 May 08, the UK's blasphemy laws were repealed in England and Wales, and they remain inactive and unenforceable in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
For more, see:
Malta repealed its biased blasphemy laws in 2016 July with Bill 133, although the Catholic Church in Malta campaigned heavily to retain it. Archbishop Charles Sciculna in particular took to Twitter, worried that people would now be free to analyse Catholic beliefs and make fun of them without legal repurcusions.
For more, see:
Intellectual blasphemy questions things that religionists do not want questioned. This can include historical queries, for example, was there really an exodus of Jews from Egypt, lead by Moses? (The answer is no.) Scientific progress sometimes requires the questioning of societal taboos - which in a religious community, often means it is necessary to explore blasphemous conclusions. The very concept of blasphemy is anti-scientific and harms the search for truth. If dogmatic taboos are stifling free thought, the promotion of intentional blasphemy can be a breath of fresh air through the stale corridors of religious conservatism.
Emotional blasphemy is a personal catharsis for someone who has struggled against their own religious convictions. To purge themselves and revel in the new freedom that comes from abandoning religious beliefs, a person can go through a phase of blasphemous expression. This is healthy and normal, and should even be encouraged, to help lighten the mood of society in general, and allow people to see religious conventions in a more balanced, humorous light.
Blasphemy as warfare: In the battle against overbearing churches, who seek to limit the extent of free thought, the forceful ridiculing and questioning of the religion's tenets serves as an example to society that the church does not deserve special exemptions from freedom of expression.
The point of blaspheming is not to insult, but to show people how absurd superstitious and religious dogma is. The better you can show up and discredit the doctrines, the greater good you do. Blasphemy is required to weed out people who would restrict our speech, not for fear of us insulting people, but for us questioning concepts. The point is to make people realize how absurd the concept of blasphemy is.