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Time to draw a line under blasphemy laws


The persecution of the Christian woman Asia Bibi for blasphemy serves as a stark warning of what happens when irrational obsessions with religious beliefs overcome any form of humanity.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has now released Bibi from prison but her freedom was difficult to attain. Shamefully, Imran Khan initially barred her from leaving the country in a bid to subdue rampaging protesters who have been baying for her blood. The millions given by the Department for International Development to Pakistan to ensure its ‘prosperity and stability’ are obviously not making much of an impact. 

Pakistan is so consumed with punishing blasphemers against Islam that it now sits at number five on the Open Doors watchlist of countries persecuting Christians. Along with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and through its seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Pakistan has also spearheaded attempts at the UN to make blasphemy universally illegal. The OIC, made up of 57 UN states, is a numerically powerful voting bloc within the UN and has been seeking special protective status for Islam as far back as 2004. No wonder so many UN resolutions and policies are anti-West and skewed in favour of Islamism. 

Between 1998 and 2011 the OIC also pushed the UN to pass non-binding resolutions on disallowing criticism of religions, technically outlawing criticism of Islam. In 2009 the UNHRC passed a resolution condemning ‘defamation of religion’. Proposed by Pakistan, and supported by the OIC, this was essentially a blasphemy law, sanctioning those who criticised or mocked Islam. 

But religion is not a person, so the concept of defamation should not apply. If blasphemy laws are implemented, minority religions are at risk of oppression and persecution by the state, as witnessed in Pakistan.

After realising that a blasphemy law would not gain much Western support the OIC admitted defeat in 2012, but not before their general secretary said that countries needed to create ‘hate-speech laws concerning Islam’.

The UN is incorrigible in the endless time and resources it wastes on trying to make religious beliefs sacrosanct. What is even worse is the blatant attempt to connect blasphemy with the Orwellian concept of hate speech. That the OIC sought to do this within the UN should worry anyone who champions free speech. But the efforts have obviously had an effect in the West.

We are sadly succumbing to sanctioning free speech in the name of religious harmony. Hate speech is the West’s new form of a blasphemy law. Both are increasingly intertwined and are now part of our language lexicon. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently ruled that free speech was not as important as being sanctioned for criticising Islam. An Austrian woman was convicted for ‘disparaging religious doctrines’ and her appeal against this was denied by the ECHR on the basis of hurting religious feelings.

Her words were insensitive and unkind. But she did not incite violence. Criticising a religion, however clumsily, should not be illegal. By accusing her of using words which could possibly incite religious hatred the ECHR is upholding her punishment under the banner of Orwellian thought crimes. Religious faith, like hurt feelings, is a subjective experience and not provable by evidence, which should be the only requirement in any court of law. If debating, mocking and critiquing religious beliefs is outlawed then we risk intellectual stagnation and worse.

We have already seen what happens in the West to those accused of blasphemy against Islam. Were the ECHR afraid that they would be attacked by Islmamists if they didn’t enforce the blasphemy accusation? The memory of Charlie Hebdo staff murdered by Islamists for the ‘crime’ of blasphemy is never far away. 

Using hate crime laws to combat religious discrimination crushes our freedom of expression and makes blasphemy illegal. Unless speech specifically involves realistic violent threats we should be free to say what we want. We have enough laws in place already to ensure equality for all races and religion and to prosecute those who commit violence. Parliament spends most of its time passing legislation, most which we don’t learn of. We don’t need any more.

The possibility that anti-Semites in the Labour party could be prosecuted under hate crime laws is also worrying. There are myriad other laws which could instead be applied.

The allegations against the perpetrators are truly awful but they are not hate crimes. This could potentially backfire and is ultimately counter-productive. The only way to defeat Labour’s anti-Semitism is not to vote for them.

Where will the line be drawn? Policing on the basis of hate crime is a waste of resources and is worryingly subjective and disparate. No more is this obvious than the arrest of those who burnt the Grenfell Tower effigy on Bonfire Night. No matter how abhorrent their actions, causing hurt feelings should not be a crime. Curiously, those who held ‘Maggie death parties’ after Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013 were not subjected to the same level of police scrutiny and harassment, despite causing hurt to Thatcher’s family.

Morality and feelings are impossible to police without turning the country into a totalitarian state. Being unkind, insensitive or even finding the deaths of others funny should not be punishable by the law. But we are now living in a dystopia where subjective feelings of taking offence form the central tenet of the West’s new law for blasphemy.

Our free speech is under attack from creeping Islamism and post-Liberal Puritans who are perpetually outraged on our behalf. They crush our freedom and are propelling us towards a society where only state-sanctioned speech is allowed. If this happens we will no longer have the right to scorn Pakistan.

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Karen Harradine
Karen Harradine
Karen is an anthropologist and freelance journalist. She writes on anti-Semitism, Israel and spirituality. She is @KarenH777on Twitter.

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