Thank you all for coming to this special event in recognition of International Blasphemy Rights Day.
Blasphemy is a topic that often lays dormant for years, until suddenly sprouting into public view—a few weeks ago there was the Florida preacher who wanted to burn the Koran, before that the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and going back further the uproar of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. However, blasphemy as a purely religious concept, and the peaceful give-and-take between so-called blasphemous speech and its inevitable condemnation by religious leaders is a phenomenon that fits easily within the free speech tradition of a healthy democratic society.
However, International Blasphemy Rights Day marks the dismay that advocates of freedom of speech, thought, and religion feel all over the globe about the curious persistence of anti-blasphemy legislation.
When I started studying blasphemy laws several years ago, I thought they were true legal anachronisms, obsolete pieces of legislation that stuck around, more or less harmlessly, because legislatures were simply too lazy to repeal them. And sometimes this is true—Canada, for example, still has a law on the books against “blasphemous libel”, but it hasn’t been used successfully by the government since the 1930s.
However, old laws, including old blasphemy laws, don’t always stay dead. England’s common law ban on blasphemy was inert for 55 years before leading to a conviction in the late 1970s, and was invoked (fortunately unsuccessfully) by Muslim activists in the late 1980s against the publishers of Salman Rushdie’s book and then just a few years ago against the stage production Jerry Springer: The Opera . Ireland’s ban remained unused for 141 years before an unsuccessful prosecution against a newspaper in 1996—and just last year, the Irish Parliament passed a new ban on blasphemy. Pakistan provides an even more startling example, as religious minorities are often targeted by domestic blasphemy laws that provide support and rhetorical ammunition to the vigilante-style murder of alleged blasphemers.
Perhaps the greatest threat the West faces, however, is the old wine of blasphemy being poured into a new glass and given a different name. These new laws, although different in concept and focus, often replicate the effects of blasphemy laws. Worse, courts and the general public seem to think they’re necessary if multiculturalism is to flourish. Inevitably, however, they simply cause more conflict as religious groups have a new means to express their frustration over speech they don’t like. In Australia, they’re called “religious vilification” laws and have led to court cases between Christians and Muslims; in Canada, they’re called “religious hate propaganda” laws and have led to magazines being taken in front of human rights commissions; in the United Nations, they’re called “Defamation of Religions” resolutions, and have been the basis of several successful resolutions before the General Assembly.
In other words, there is a global trend of anti-blasphemy laws being given new vigor by being re-packaged. In many countries around the world, the threat of being prosecuted under blasphemy laws or their modern-day counterparts is a real one—and atheists, humanists, and freethinkers can easily become victims.
The main idea I want to leave you with is that the promise of the Enlightenment and Modernity has certainly not yet been fulfilled in this area. Laws against blasphemy remain a genuine threat to the ideals of secularism and free speech, and this is the reality we should recognize on International Blasphemy Rights Day.