The blasphemy clause added to the 2009 Defamation act in Ireland was viewed by many to be archaic and thought to put the cause of European human rights back centuries. Freedom of speech and expression would be viewed by most to be a fundamental human right. At Charlie Hebdo 12 people were killed because they worked for a publication that depicted images of the prophet Muhammad. Many Islamic people disagree with any depiction of Muhammad. The Journalists who drew these images were exercising their right of freedom of expression.
This murderous act of terrorism and the events that followed it were quite rightly condemned by most civilised society. The big question of course is could it have been prevented? Would a blasphemy law in France similar to that in Ireland have made any difference? The answer is probably no because the problem is that the concept of blasphemy is in itself far too archaic and subjective to be workable in a modern legal system.
In this day and age how does one even define what constitutes a religion? Section 36 of the 2009 Defamation act says a person is liable if they publish or utter a matter that is grossly insulting to matters held sacred by any religion. It then goes on to say that a ‘religion’ does not include any organisation or cult! Surely any religion is both an organisation and a cult.
Defence of the claim of blasphemy under Irish Law is where a defendant can prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates. There are so many ambiguous elements to this law, again how do you define a reasonable person or the meaning of genuine value?
If someone were to claim they were the subject of religious blasphemy it then allows anyone to claim they are being wronged. In the French case it’s probably fair to surmise that these extremist terrorists would not have explored any legal avenue even if it had been available. Many different religions are disrespected and insulted by Journalists all the time but it does not give someone or some organisation the right to attack them. Giving any extremist group the right to claim the offence of blasphemy could also be seen as giving in to the bullies.
In a western society that is becoming increasingly secular there is probably no room for blasphemy law. This is not to say that journalists and journalistic publications should not be somewhat sensitive to the beliefs of large sections of society. Freedom of speech should not mean freedom to constantly deride or insult certain sections of society.
The government has accepted that a referendum should be held on the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the constitution and hence repeal the Irish Blasphemy law. With referenda to be held on marriage equality and voting age this year it will be next year at the earliest before we see a referendum on this issue.
What’s your opinion?
Do you think there is any room for blasphemy legislation in the Irish constitution?
Is freedom of speech a good enough reason to disrespect someone’s religion?