We started 2016 this week and New Year’s Day was the sixth anniversary of our new blasphemy law in Ireland commencing. This would be an acutely embarrassing situation for any country but it is actually much worse than just an embarrassment. Speaking on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Pakistan has proposed the precise wording of the Irish blasphemy law at the United Nations General Assembly.
It is not a cause for celebration to be cited as best practice in blasphemy law by Pakistan. This is a country where the jails are home to people like Asia Bibi, who is awaiting her execution for the victimless “crime” of blasphemy. People in such dreadful situations require the support of the international community and while Ireland retains our own blasphemy laws, our ability to seek the repeal of blasphemy laws in Pakistan is compromised.
There will be a general election in Ireland shortly and Atheist Ireland intends to keep this issue on the agenda of the candidates. After the country voted in a referendum to allow same sex marriage last year, we are confident that we can win another referendum campaign to remove blasphemy from our constitution. Actually, I was reminded recently of one occasion when the two issues coalesced, as blasphemy was mentioned in the context of the marriage equality campaign.
During September 2014, I took part in a radio debate on the then recently announced marriage equality referendum. It was made clear to me by the host of the show that I should not repeat on air, a previous comment describing the authors of Biblical prohibitions on homosexuality as “cave dwellers from the desert”. I was able to point out to him that the earliest known manuscripts of Bible passages were found at a place called Qumran. This is an archaeological site in the desert that includes an extensive complex of caves, located in the present day West Bank. The main excavations at the site were conducted by Roland de Vaux, who proposed that the caves were used both as a library for the manuscripts and also as lodgings for the Qumran residents.
The tendency of many within the Irish media is not to engage in discussions around what is theologically or legally acceptable with regard to blasphemy. Even if confident of success, media outlets do not relish the prospect of hiring lawyers to defend legal challenges to their content. Instead, if they feel that any of their more religious audience will be offended, they will simply censor the content in question. In this case, the public debate was censored such that the origin of religious objections to homosexuality was not discussed.
This highlights another problem with blasphemy laws, in that it is impossible for someone discussing religious issues to know what listeners may and may not find blasphemous. How could I know in advance that some Christians would view as blasphemous, an objective historical fact about “cave dwellers from the desert”? Our priority should be those suffering immediate threat from blasphemy laws, such as Asia Bibi and secular bloggers in places like Bangladesh. The repeal of our own blasphemy laws will be a welcome first step in this regard but it will also improve the quality of our public discourse.
National Committee, Atheist Ireland
Secretary, Atheist Alliance International