BLASPHEMY laws, in the sense of laws that penalise speech or acts that disrespect God or the sacred, are “astonishingly widespread”. From the harshest laws to the mildest, all of them deviate in some degree from the international norms that uphold freedom of belief and expression.
Those were the main conclusions of a report issued this week by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), reflecting several years of work by a panel of researchers. It identified 71 countries that punished blasphemy—two of which, Denmark and Malta, repealed their laws very recently—and ranked them according to severity. The countries were assessed on the basis of the harshness of their penalties, the vagueness or precision of the offence, and the degree to which the blasphemy laws underpinned discrimination against some religious groups. Pakistan and Egypt were among the countries found to be using blasphemy laws as a form of anti-minority oppression.
The five countries deemed to practise the grossest violations of international standards were all Muslim-majority lands. Top came Iran and Pakistan, both countries where “blasphemers” can face death. At the other extreme came Ireland, which introduced a new blasphemy law in 2009 on the grounds that the constitution required such legislation. There have been no convictions under the law and initial moves to prosecute Stephen Fry, a British actor, for stridently anti-theistic remarks were dropped amid general embarrassment.
Many European states have blasphemy laws on the statute book, designed to protect established or privileged churches, but they are hardly ever invoked. Russia, Kazakhstan, Poland and Montenegro are on the list, but most other ex-communist countries seem to have retained a relatively secular ethos in their constitutions and therefore have no blasphemy law.
Although Canada appears on the list, with the ninth-mildest regime, the authors commend the fact that Canadian law explicitly upholds the right to robust religious debate, as long as it is conducted in “good faith and decent language”. New Zealand’s legislation affirms something quite similar.
The research delivers a surprisingly harsh verdict on Italy, deemed to be seventh worst infringer of international norms. In truth, that country is hardly in the same league as those that execute, lash or lynch blasphemers. But the terms of an Italian court decision in 2015 were rather troubling to free-expression campaigners. It upheld a fine imposed on an artist who, in a public place in Milan, had depicted a sexual act involving the former Pope Benedict and one of his clerical advisers. The judgment said criticism of religion was legitimate if it was carried out by qualified people with relevant experience—a category into which the artist clearly did not fall.
Joelle Fiss, one of the report’s authors, said their research raised questions about established or state religion. Although having a state religion was permitted in international law, the research showed a correlation between such regimes and harshly enforced blasphemy laws. That, in turn, posed a question about whether it was possible, even hypothetically, to have a state religion which does not imply some disadvantage to religious minorities.
One of the most thoughtful recent comments on the subject has come from Mairead McGuinness, an Irish politician whose job as vice-president of the European Parliament includes dialogue with religions. The fact that her country maintained a blasphemy law, however soft and little-used, weakened Europe’s hand in dialogue with other parts of the world. “The problem [arises] when Europeans criticise the abusive blasphemy or apostasy laws in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Sudan or a host of others,” she said. “The local authorities frequently accuse us of hypocrisy.”
Her conclusion is that Ireland should have a referendum on abolishing the line in Article 40 of the constitution which says that blasphemy should be punished by law: a change that all the country’s political parties and churches would support. In other words, civil liberty begins at home.