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Blasphemy outlawed in the Constitution – why we should remove this urgently

Pakistan quotes Ireland’s law against blasphemy to defend against democratic countries urging them to abolish it. Laws do maintain culture within a society, and the culture in Pakistan against blasphemy has resulted in the murder of – people released from a blasphemy charge, a lawyer who defended an accused, a judge who did not make the popular decision, and a state governor who had spoken in public of the problems with this law and favoured repealing it.

These murders contribute to views that to kill people who blaspheme (and anyone who favours the “blasphemers”) is right and reasonable. This contribution probably extends, at least indirectly, to those who did the murders on 07 01 2015 in Paris.

To prohibit blasphemy does not add to freedom of religion; it reduces it

Religions have rules. There are usually rules about what you will think or believe, mostly about the god and related people or things. A second set of rules tell you to do some things, and also not to do some other things.

Freedom of religion in democratic societies means you are free to join a religion, and also free not to join a religion; to choose which religion; and to leave the religion at any time.

When you choose a religion you can agree to follow its rules (otherwise, you are not bound by such rules.) If a thousand million people thereby undertake not to draw pictures of Mohammed, that does not create a right for any of those people to stop the other six thousand million people on earth drawing and publishing what they choose. A law against blasphemy is not about freedom of religion: rather it lets some people stop other people exercising freedom of religion and some other freedoms.

A state’s laws have to balance (a) protecting people from major harm and (b) not being involved in sorting out smaller hurts and disputes, so that people can run their own lives and so that ideas grow and improve

We hear in the news that very many people have taken insult at even the cartoon on the cover of Charlie Hebdo published on 14 01 2015. Probably most people who say this cartoon has insulted them have not seen it.

Written above the drawing of what could be Mohammed is “Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven). I think this means that Mohammed is forgiving Charlie Hebdo for all the previous cartoons that implied bad things about him. The cover cartoon is saying that Mohammed forgives, surely a favourable comment; some verses in the Qur’an do favour forgiving. On his chest Mohammed carries a placard “Je suis Charlie”. I think this means he feels the same as the millions of people who thought the murders of the magazine staff was wrong. Some verses in the Qur’an say murder is wrong. Except that it is a drawing of Mohammed’s face, which some sections of Islam say is wrong, the cartoon is not suggesting Mohammed was or is bad.

A democratic society has to decide what harms or hurts to other people it will prohibit people from causing. The big harms are deliberately or carelessly causing another person to die, assaulting or injuring people (including sexual assaults and injuries), taking or damaging other people’s things, and telling lies about a living person so that other people think less of that person. I think very few people doubt that state law should prohibit these acts.

There are a large number of little hurts, and if the law regulated these, the law would be accusing most people every day. People’s minds would be more occupied with getting the law to compensate them for the hurts, so much that it would interfere with them running the positive and constructive parts of their lives. The law must ignore small harms and hurts.

 

Criticising an idea is not criticising a person who believes that idea

The case here is for freedom to criticise ideas. It is not about criticising people. Criticism of a person’s idea is not criticism of that person.

Every idea may be partly or wholly mistaken. People try to choose the more sensible ideas, though you could adopt an idea that later turns out to be wrong. People do not like being shown to be wrong, but at times they do accept other people showing that one of her or his ideas includes a mistake. They count this as a help.

The case for removing the offence of Blasphemy is about allowing criticism of ideas. People make society based on ideas, so having the least mistaken ideas is important. When things have gone wrong in society, at times this has been due to ideas.

The law in Ireland does not stop public criticism of ideas, no matter how closely or emotionally a person holds these ideas, except where the ideas concern religion. Some people attach strongly and emotionally to a particular sporting team, or to a political party or cause. No matter how deeply people feel about these, the law does not try to stop other people criticising or satirising your ideas. Few people want the law to protect them from other people insulting their choice in sport or in politics.

Suppose that a person considers criticism of his or her ideas to be an insult to himself or herself. If the law restrains the person who might make that criticism, prohibiting such criticism, this encourages the person who dislikes any criticism of her or his ideas to continue taking the criticism of the idea to be an insult to herself or himself, and this distortion becomes stronger within that person’s mind. The law against blasphemy, that prohibits a person from causing outrage to another person by criticising an idea that the other person holds dear, encourages or promotes these feelings of outrage. So it is very important for law and culture to emphasise the difference between (a) an idea that a person may hold, which is not a part of the person, and (b) the person and his or her character.

Freedom to criticise ideas produces a more stable and peaceful society, while prohibition of criticism causes discord and, on occasion, violence

It is bad for a society to encourage people to be too sensitive to criticism of their ideas. Approving of such sensitivity makes it harder to get people to debate and discuss matters on which various people have different opinions. Such debate is needed to let a society reach consensus and have peace. Laws that stop people criticising those ideas do not produce a peaceful society but rather produce a troubled society.

A peaceful society will arise instead where people accept that such criticism is normal. Law should not prohibit such criticism.

We should have a referendum in 2015 to remove the provision that makes Blasphemy an offence from Ireland’s Constitution.

Visit all the TDs in your constituency and ask them to vote to give us a referendum.

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