By Vexen Crabtree 2012 Jun 30
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 They only protected Christians, and were considered by activists (and Law Lords, by the 2000s) to be prejudiced, outdated and a threat to free speech.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.
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.
Christian and Islamic laws against blasphemy at their most extreme are the same. Free speech, freedom of discussion, freedom of debate, freedom of criticism and inquiry, all come second to 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.
Much of the advance of the human condition, for intellectual freedom, and for human rights, has been in opposition to religious instincts to control and stifle religious inquiry.
“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)
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. 1.
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 general2.
But Christian censorship didn't last and (after several hundred years of censorship) Westerners 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. 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 homosexuality. 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.
Islamic censorship is still rife in home countries, and that includes some heavy-handed restrictions on access to the Internet. This is not just about pornographic material: even, in the 21st century, printed material and books are censored on their religious and scientific content if it is deemed to be "unIslamic", and this extends even to simple things such as TV dramas3. Pakistan is infamously for the frequency at which people are arrested under its blasphemy laws14.
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.15
Medieval-minded Muslims do not restrict their wrath to those who actually believe the same way they do. Salmon Rushdie is one famous (non-Muslim) victim, now having spent many years in hiding as a result of publishing a work of fiction that featured Muhammad. Anywhere on the Internet, global 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.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is a grouping of Islamic countries who present a combined voice at various United Nations institutions for the purpose of advancing Islam and imposing Islamic values wherever they can. They have no democratic concerns, and, human rights are put below any Islamic interests, which is as you would expect from theocratic countries.
“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.”
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, but, is not any more horrendous that the same Christian sensibilities during the Dark Ages.
Saudi Arabia is as infamous as Pakistan for its deadly serious approach to blasphemy.
“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.”
Defamation of Religion
With these battles in mind, the Islamic states have repeatedly brought the concept of 'defamation of religion' to the United Nation's Human Rights Council, seeking to have religions protected from blasphemy and criticism, but, 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. With religious freedom and free speech, people are free to discuss, debate, criticize and question religious beliefs, and, are also free to convert each other, as they wish. None of this is acceptable to Islamic states, hence, the concept of "defamation of religion" boosts the idea of blasphemy to such as extent that many other rights are trampled.
The following are extracts from the International Humanist and Ethical Union's monthly newsletter for 2008 Oct, which contained a few items on the subject:
“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. Read more.
Criticism of religion is not blasphemy
The IHEU position on defamation of religion was strongly supported on23 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! Read more
USA speaks out strongly against OIC manoeuvring on 'defamation of religion'
The US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, John V. Hanford III, has strongly supported freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and opposed the OIC's promotion of the concept of 'defamation of religions' at the UN as incompatible with international human rights law. Read more.
Defamation of religion is not a human rights concept - Belgium
In a statement to the UN Human Rights Council, Belgium has come out firmly on the side of individual human rights. Read more.”
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.4
In March 2008 Peers voted for the laws to be abandoned.4
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 2008.4
The founding of the British Board of Film Censors in 1912 saw an instance ban
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 libel5. 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"6. The 1843 prosecution was when bookseller Thomas Paterson was sentenced at Edinburgh High Court to 15 months in prison for selling blasphemous books7.
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'"9.
“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"9.
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"10.
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 didnít 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 Britainís 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 England6, 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"11.
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 so12. 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"7. 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"6. 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 life14. 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 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]
Constitutional & Administrative Law (2004). 5th edition. Originally published 1995 by Cavendish Publishing Ltd, London UK.
From Sacred Text to Internet (2001, Ed.). 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.
Osborn's Concise Law Dictionary (2001, Ed.). 9th edition. First edition 1927. Published by Sweet & Maxwell Limited, London UK.
"The Pro-Blasphemy Position: Satanism in Action!" (2008). Accessed 2013 Apr 06.
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.
Are Human Rights Universal (2001). 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.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (2005). Published in the United States by Regnery Publishing, Inc, Washington, DC.
Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity (1989). Published by Routledge.