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In defence of our blasphemy laws

Simon Mercieca Friday, 16 January 2015, 19:51 Last update: about 10 years ago

My previous blog brought about different reactions to my argument that we, in Malta, should keep our blasphemy laws, as they are an integral element that safeguards our personal liberty. In the West, we tend to confuse blasphemy with heresy. Heresy occurs when a religious institution thinks that what is being said goes against the approved dogma. Infringing on others to think differently hinders personal freedom. Blasphemy on the other hand is an impious utterance or action concerning God, sacred things or irreverent behaviour toward anything held sacred.

Blasphemy laws are not there to impede freedom of speech. They are there to safeguard the feelings and opinions of others. If society finds it appropriate to offend other peoples' religious beliefs, that society will eventually turn against itself. This is what happened in the French Revolution. The revolutionaries ended up impeding the freedom of speech to all those who did not agree with them. Scholars in France are today strongly (and rightly so) endorsing the idea that what happened, in 1789, was the start of a genocide. By 1815, the revolution and the Napoleonic wars had left 15 million dead in Europe. In England, this period was referred to as the Great War. 

Yet, even with blasphemy, one has to admit that there are also complications, as not all civilisations understand them in the same manner. The problem becomes even more conceptualized between the west and the east.  While blasphemy is generally practised in the West, it is practically non-existing among Muslims. In other words, swearing is a western phenomenon. This was noted by Predrag Matvejevicin his book, BrevarioMediterraneo. He stated that Muslims do not swear. The same holds for Jews.  In the Orient, in particular for Jews, they go to the Synagogue either to pray for God's blessing or to ask for the damnation of their enemies. In Christianity today, this practice or custom of praying to curse your enemy is non-existent.

For the Christian world, the anthropomorphization of the image of God (rendering a spirit into a human figure) is quite an accepted custom, not so for Islam or Judaism where any imagery is anathema. In the west, Judaism is normally spared from blasphemy under the precept that ridiculing Judaism is tantamount to racial discrimination. In fact, most of the French citizens endorsed the right of Charlie Hebdo to satirize the Christian and Muslim religion. However, when a French Arab, by the name of Dieudonné uses the same tools to make political pun of the Jews and their religion, he is dragged to court. Again he ended up in controversy and was investigated by the police for saying, after the attack, that "Je suis Charlie Coulibaly". For the Muslims in France, it is clear that if satire is made by the Jews or the French, it is considered legal but if the satire is used by Arabs or Muslims, it is immediately dubbed as provocation.

I find the statement of Pope Francis extremely appropriate. He condemned the attack but at the same time had the courage to affirm that there are limits to the freedom of speech. The problem for France is that while it seeks to impose a limit on the freedom of speech o fthe comedian Dieudonné because he seeks to ridicule the Jews, it allows others to mock other people's faith and ways. I do not think that this will help intercultural dialogue. Freedom of speech is either absolute or else it becomes a new tool of political oppression. This is a clear case of two scales two measures.

Does our society accept, in the name of freedom of expression, a situation where say a Nationalist goes to a Labour Party meeting and starts poking fun at the Labour Speakers? What would happen in such a situation is easily envisaged. In this case forget all the discourse about freedom of expression and start labelling all those who dare to do such type of actions as provocative agents.

When it comes to religion, everything is permitted but when it comes to sex, for example, we start to use a different gauge. In Malta, for example, we are starting to discuss the need for laws to regulate the use of the Internet.  In the US, revenge porn has been regulated and ranked as cyber bullying.  Is not the argument here the same as the one used in the past for the introduction and support of blasphemy laws? Revenge porn is all about ruining a person's life. Making fun of religion or individuals is no different. Like revenge porn, blasphemy laws were introduced to prevent such humiliation. It should be pointed out that in keeping these laws, the United States is being consistent with her principles of political freedom. In fact, it should be pointed out that in the US, blasphemy laws have been in place for centuries and no one is asking to remove them. Their removal goes against the American Constitution, which seeks to protect believers and non-believers without anyone feeling excluded or offended by unjust satire. When satire crosses the borders of decorum and its sole purpose like revenge porn, is to humiliate or embarrass others, it becomes intolerable. Like non-consensual pornography, it becomes a felony.

The problem here is one of values. Like our ancestors, we are living in a chaotic world. Coherence is the best policy. It is here where our society is failing. Double standards are our worse enemy. On Wednesday, Charlie Hebdo was out again with its confrontational cartoons. From our Western point of view, the cartoon of Mohammed appears quite sympathetic. I am not sure about the feelings of others, but when we show disrespect to others, problems of cultural conviviality start to crop up. 

For this reason, I find it difficult to say "Je suis Charlie"for I would be endorsing and supporting Charlie Hebdo's attacks on others. This does not mean that I am supporting the attackers or defending them but I fully endorse the phrase "Je suis Ahmed" in reference to the Muslim policeman who was killed in this attack. Despite the fact that Charlie Hebdo attacked his religion, Ahmed died doing his job defending the rights of citizens.

I doubt how many of us are like Ahmed, ready to die to save the rights of others.By abolishing Blasphemy Laws, society would be doing a disservice to free speech, as itwould be accommodating the views of extremists. Are we not already dealing with a social reality, which is already verging on the extreme? 



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