The end of blasphemy?

In the wake of the blasphemy referendum, are we living in a more secular, progressive society, or will this historically ineffectual law lead to an equally nonexistent impact?

On October 31, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian, was acquitted by the Pakistani’s Supreme Court after spending eight years on death row following a conviction of blasphemy. Due to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, when accused of defaming the Prophet Mohammed, she was sentenced to death by hanging. Bibi’s recent acquittal was praised by religious minority groups and human rights organisation, but sparked protests among some radical fundamentalist Islamist groups who rallied for her execution.  

That same month, just days before Bibi’s acquittal, Ireland repealed article 40.6 of our constitution,  prohibiting the offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter. Blasphemy was defined as “matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, causing “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”. Before the repeal, a fine of up to25,000 could be imposed. Due to its ambiguity, the law barely managed to take anyone to court, let alone be enacted fully. Although it was bunched in with the Presidential election, when the referendum was proposed, it was met by criticism across Ireland, with many deeming it a waste of money. It was the lowest turnout for a Presidential election in the history of the State. When asked about the implications of this referendum, there was a lack of interest from several affected groups across campus. Irish people have long since strayed away from the substitution of “Jesus Christ” with “jeepers creepers”, “God” with “gosh”. Unlike in Pakistan, no one has been punished in Ireland for taking the Lord’s name in vain. So, what did our blasphemy law mean in the context of Irish society, and will its repeal have any real impact on our society?

“Many media commentators, such as the Irish Times and The Guardian, described it as a ‘medieval law'”.

According to John Hamill, a member of the National Committee of Atheist Ireland, an organisation that rallied for this referendum for decades, “removing blasphemy laws is about supporting the human right to the freedom of religion and belief, for those of all faiths and none”. Many media commentators, such as the Irish Times and The Guardian, described it as a “medieval law”, with no place in a progressive, tolerant society. Shaykh Dr Umar al-Qadri, the Chair of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council and Head-Imam of Islamic Centre of Ireland, also affirmed the importance of freedom of speech in a progressive, modern Ireland. “In my view, we do need legislation that will criminalise such actions, but blasphemy laws that are too ambiguous and open for interpretation and do not provide any space for criticism of religious thought…do not have space in progressive societies.”

Within the historical context of a self-protective Catholic Church, and the current momentum toward removing the Church’s influence in State affairs, it’s hard to anticipate what role the repeal of the article will play in the gradual secularisation of the Irish state. Dr Umar al-Qadri states that “the results of the blasphemy referendum, abortion referendum, and marriage referendum are a strong message from the public to the Catholic Church specifically…The role of the Catholic Church in our society is certainly changing and has changed.”

With the diminishment of the Catholics Church’s institutional strength, what kind of change will we see within the Catholic Church and Christianity in Ireland? Father Alan O’Sullivan, a Catholic priest in Trinity’s Chaplaincy, expects that “Christianity is going to become much smaller, but at the same time, more intimate, stronger in meeting a human need for belonging, a community…I think we’ll be looking at something like that over the next fifty years. It won’t mean an end to religion, but new skins, new forms, new communitarian projects.” Despite falling priest numbers, and falling attendance of Mass, the result of the referendum does not indicate the end of the Church within Ireland, Fr O’Sullivan says. “Loyalty to a religious institution may wane, and may show on a referendum result, but one may be surprised to find how ‘religious’ unexpected people can be in a private, domestic capacity.”

Blasphemy laws do not protect people from harm but rather they protect ideas from criticism. I think that all ideas should be open to criticism, even harsh criticism and mockery.”

Religious prejudices and xenophobia often manifest as violence, as we have seen with the recent hate crime in Pittsburg, or as harmful legislation such as the Muslim travel ban in the US. Dr Umar al-Qadri believes that in order to prevent the rise of religious prejudices, xenophobia, and racism, more provision must now be put in place. He believes that we must learn, through all levels of education, about the “diversity of our humanity”, about different faiths and communities such as “Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, atheists, Travellers, LGBT”. Blasphemy laws were not effective in its prevention of these ailments, according to Hamil: “Blasphemy laws do not protect people from harm but rather they protect ideas from criticism. I think that all ideas should be open to criticism, even harsh criticism and mockery.”  

Already in the constitution, under the Incitement to Hatred Act of 1989, an attack on religion may amount to an offence. The Act does not refer to blasphemy, but it says that it is an offence to engage in certain words and acts intended to stir up hatred, including hatred toward religious groups. Dr Umar al-Qadri says: “The Muslim community is not concerned about the omission of the word blasphemy in the constitution, but like with many other faith communities it is concerned that with the removal of the blasphemy law now there is no legislation in the State that explicitly prevents someone from burning the Quran or the Bible or any such actions.” Likewise, Fr O’Sullivan says: “I would only be affected by this omission if blasphemy came to my doorstep…The broader Christian community may be disturbed if blasphemy became more acceptable in public if for example, an activist chose to burn a Bible or something like that in the public square.”

So where to now? According to Hamill, there is still a long road ahead to the ultimate disentanglement of Church and State, attesting that Atheist Ireland will be busy for quite some time. “Many of our most important public services, such as health and education, are funded by the State but managed according to the ethos of one religious denomination. Conscientious atheists and other minorities such as Quakers are excluded from important positions such as President, Taoiseach, and judges. Many other laws discriminate against the non-religious, such as the Civil Registration Act.” Fr O’Sullivan also recognises there is still work to be done. “Clear distinctions of roles need to be made, as well as a certain autonomy established…The Church must be free to cater to the spiritual needs of its people; the State must be free, without inordinate interference by religious bodies, to legislate for the common good of its citizens.” O’Sullivan continues: “We do live in a pluralist world, but it does not mean that religious voices are no longer part of the conversation.”

Milena Barnes

Milena Barnes is a former Features Editor of Trinity News.