Christian and Islamic laws against blasphemy, when at their most extreme, are equal in severity and strictness. Free speech, freedom of discussion, freedom of debate, freedom of criticism and inquiry, are all considered secondary the primary aim of maintaining a hold on converts. Not surprisingly, both Christianity and Islam have held that conversion attempts, and converting away from the religion, are punishable crimes. That has often meant punishable 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. 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)
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
The right of free speech is enshrined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers".
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 converts others into their own faith. 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.
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. Some similar restrictions existed in America too; liberalisation began in the 1960s but that decade still saw Spanish actor Enrique Irazoqui 15 months hard labor in Spain for portraying Jesus in 1964.2.
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 general3.
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 in 2012 three actors were arrested for playing parts in a play that featured a gay Jesus4 and 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"4. 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 used4. 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 homosexuality5. Now that modern democracies are more careful to avoid discrimination of grounds of religion, most democracies no longer allow established churches to maintain biased censorship controls.
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.
Islamic censorship is still rife in home countries, and that includes some 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 censors6. Pakistan is infamous for the frequency at which people are arrested under its blasphemy laws7.
The threat isn't just one against free speech: 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 writer, was stabbed in 1994 after accusations of blasphemy.8
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 Islam.
"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 Hinduism10. 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 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"13.
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 level14. 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"15. 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 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 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.
Until 2008 the UK still had old anachronistic blasphemy laws on its statute books. They were once thought to be abandoned to disuse in the 1970s, but they were revived in the 1990s. They only protected Christians, and were considered by activists (and Law Lords, by the 2000s) to be prejudiced, outdated and a threat to free speech. Before being abolished, they were already partially overridden by Free Speech laws and European Human Rights Law.
On 2008 May 08, the UK's blasphemy laws were repealed:
In January 2008, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the Government would consider the abolition of the blasphemy laws during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The Government consulted with the Church of England and other churches before reaching a decision. The move followed a letter written to The Daily Telegraph at the instigation of MP Evan Harris and the National Secular Society and was signed by leading figures including Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged that the laws be abandoned.18
In March 2008 Peers voted for the laws to be abandoned.18
On May 8 2008, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales, with effect from 8 July 2008.18
In "Constitutional & Administrative Law" by Hilaire Barnett (2004) it states that for the fifty-five years between 1922 and 1977 there were no prosecutions for blasphemous libel19. It was rightly thought and felt by all that such outdated laws were no longer usable in court. But two cases in 1979 and 1990 highlighted the fact that UK law could still uphold the anachronistic and embarrassing common law offence of "blasphemy".
"The last man to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott. In 1922 he was sentenced to nine months hard labour for comparing Jesus with a circus clown. In Scotland, there has not been a public prosecution since 1843"20. The 1843 prosecution was when bookseller Thomas Paterson was sentenced at Edinburgh High Court to 15 months in prison for selling blasphemous books21.
In 1979, 1990 and 1997 three cases highlighted the mind-boggling nonsense of the law on blasphemy:
UK blasphemy laws only protected Christians. The Concise Law Dictionary points out that blasphemy is only valid if it affects the Christian God, Jesus Christ, the Christian Bible or the Christian Book of Common Prayer. Blasphemous libel occurs not only when hateful literature is published, "reviling" or "scurrilous", but even when "ludicrous matter" relating to Christian concepts is published. Something merely has to be "ludicrous" to Christians in order to blasphemy charges to be brought. Thankfully it was very rarely used and, from the 1990s when it made a resurgence, was loathed by the legal world itself.
It is worth pointing out again that they only protected Christians. However ridiculous this seems, it was true, since the 19th century. It was tested and confirmed in an appeal to the House of Lords. "In Lord Scarman's opinion, the law should be extended to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians. Lord Scarman stated that: 'In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt'"24.
“This view was not to prevail, however. In R v Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate ex parte Choudhury (1991), it was held that blasphemy remained confined to protection of the Christian religion as exemplified by the established Church of England. [...] That the law should offer such limited and discriminatory protection is both anachronistic and offensive to the principle of equality in a pluralistic society. The Law Commission in 1985 recommended that the offence be abolished, but the government has not acted on this recommendation.”
The situation was worse than I have so far let on. In R. v. Lemon it was also shown that the defendant's intent didn't matter to the conviction [Bone, 2001]. In other words, if someone accidentally published something blasphemous, they could have still be tried. "The House of Lords held that there was no need to prove an intention to blaspheme, but rather that it was sufficient to prove that a blasphemous libel [...] had been published"24.
There were legal limitations to the law. When the Christian zealot, Stephen Green, attempted to bring a case against the BBC for showing Jerry Springer - the Opera, judges "said the 1968 Theatres Act prevented any prosecution for blasphemy in relation to public performances of plays and the 1990 Broadcasting Act prevented any prosecution in relation to broadcasts"25.
There have also been various other challenges by professional bodies and protests by public movements, against the blasphemy laws.
“In 2002, a deliberate and well-publicised public, repeat, reading of the poem The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name by James Kirkup took place on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square and failed to lead to any prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It suggested Jesus was gay. An earlier reading in 1977 had led to prosecution. Militant Christians tried to drown out the 2002 reading. “We have won an important victory for free speech and the right to protest”, declared human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. “No one was arrested. The police didn´t even take our names and addresses. The blasphemy law is now a dead letter. If the authorities are not prepared to enforce the law, they should abolish it”. A trial would have involved all those who read and published the poem, including several of Britain´s leading writers, academics and MPs. “The blasphemy law gives the Christian religion privileged protection against criticism and dissent. No other institution enjoys such sweeping powers to suppress the expression of opinions and ideas”, said Peter Tatchell.”
Some Muslims in 1990 and Christians all over the UK have wished to silence critics of religion. Before its abolition, the blasphemy laws were supported by various Christian lobby groups including Christian Voice and the Church of England20, although "George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said yesterday that the blasphemy laws should be axed and he believed the Church of England would not seriously oppose such a move"26.
Challenges to the blasphemy law had been made by members of parliament, human rights groups, religious representatives from many non-Church of England faiths, secularists and pressure groups. The biggest set-back was that the law was used so infrequently that hardly anyone cared that it was still there. The government said it would repeal the law when it has time to do so27. The Council of Europe has also resolved that all of Europe should take a similar stance, and repeal blasphemy laws:
“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."”
In 2005 I saw that there are two possible ways to fix the blasphemy laws.
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. This is especially true given that our laws apply no matter the intent, so that 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 the law was the only sensible path.
The legal system of England was once ruled by the Christian Church; much of "ecclesiastical law" influenced common law. "The offence of blasphemy was originally part of ecclesiastical law. In the seventeenth century, blasphemy was declared a common law offence by the Court of the King's Bench[...]. From the 16th century to the mid 19th century, blasphemy against the Christian religion was held as an offence against common law. [It was used to] to persecute atheists, Unitarians, and others"21. It used to cover all Christian denominations but in an 1838 case it was restricted to protect the "tenets and beliefs of the Church of England"20. This is because the Church of England became the established denomination of the English government, and they tolerated no other forms of Christianity and did not want to protect them.
It was used to persecute the publication of anything that questioned Christian beliefs or the Christian religion. It was an offence to question the Holy Trinity or to question that the Christian Bible was the word of God. Strict and fundamentalist Muslim countries in the present day have the same attitude towards blasphemy of their prophet Muhammad as Christians once did in Europe.
Unused for decades, the UK's blasphemy laws had come to the fore since 1979 before being abolished in 2008. Blasphemy laws were invoked when closed-minded religious bigots wanted to stifle the free speech of others, such as in R. v Lemon 1979 when a poem about Jesus was published in a gay magazine. In Pakistan they are used to, for example, block any scholarly discussion of any aspect of Muhammad's life7. The publications in question are not personal insults or hateful literature; they are not professional or political, they are largely expressive, emotional or scholarly. That blasphemy laws are used in such a way - to protect concepts from being questioned - is not only wrong and closed-minded, but undemocratic.
The final straw was that the UK's blasphemy laws only protected Christians - not Muslims or Jews - and historically only the Church of England. It was deeply prejudiced, intolerable and confusing that we still had such laws. Thankfully the European Courts, British legal community, Lobby groups and British politicians have spoken out against the blasphemy laws. Good riddance: the world is now a fairer place.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
(1948) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations website has a full copy of this document here: www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml (accessed 2014 May 14).
(2004) Constitutional & Administrative Law. 5th edition. Originally published 1995 by Cavendish Publishing Ltd, London UK.
(2001, Ed.) From Sacred Text to Internet. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This was a course book for the OU module "Religion Today: Traditional, Modernity and Change" which ran until 2011.
Bunt, Gary R.. Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, UK
(2011) Religion and the Internet. This essay is chapter 39 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages p705-720.).
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.
(2008) "The Pro-Blasphemy Position: Satanism in Action!" (2008). Accessed 2015 Nov 26.
Franck, Thomas M. Murray and Ida Becker Professor of Law and Directory of the Center for International Studies at New York University's School of Law.
(2001) Are Human Rights Universal?. Published in Foreign Affairs 2001, Vol. 80, No 1, pp. 191-204.
International Humanist and Ethical Union: The world union of Humanist organizations (IHEU) news email
The Satanic Verses.
(2005) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. Published in the United States by Regnery Publishing, Inc, Washington, DC.
(1989) Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity. Published by Routledge.