The lunacy of international blasphemy laws

Whilst it is not wise to deliberately cause offence, some people quite simply need to develop thicker skins and grow up

Calm down dears
Ghaffar Hussain
On 26 November 2012 10:10

In the wake of deadly riots ostensibly over the now infamous YouTube video that mocked Islam, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) had been working to convince the UN to establish a global blasphemy law. Needless to say these attempts ended in frustration and failure.

But fear not, the Arab League has now emerged from its slumber and decided to pick up from where the OIC left.

One would think with civil war in Syria, instability in Egypt, and a growing Jihadist insurgency in Yemen, the Arab League would have more pressing matters to deal with. As it happens, it doesn’t since it has managed to find ample time in its busy schedules to devote to an utterly absurd task.

The idea is to criminalise acts or words that cause offence to religion on the basis that the psychological and spiritual harm that such offence causes is, apparently, just as bad as physical harm.

The irony is that these calls are coming from the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan. You don't need a Masters in Middle Eastern studies to see why these states have little credibility when it comes to responsible speech and equality, but we are dealing with the UN here.

The first and obvious problem with such a law is that you would have to start by defining 'religion'. Which belief systems qualify and which don't? Does Mormonism count? It has 15 million followers now and is growing at an alarming rate. Does Scientology count? How about Jehovah's Witnesses? We've all been compelled to offend them at some stage in our lives.

If these and other smaller religions are included, and there is no reason why they shouldn't be, we could start to see prosecutions being bought against artists, writers, film directors, singers, and poets. After all, mockery of religion permeates almost all aspects of western culture and is expressed in art, music, film, literature, and poetry.

Do sects considered deviant by mainstream Islam, such as Ishmailis, Ahmedis, and Bahai's count? The followers and holy figures of these sects are routinely mocked, ridiculed, and even persecuted by many Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries. And what about Hinduism which is routinely mocked by many Muslims around the world for its multiple deities and rituals?

Such laws would also have to rely on clear conceptualisations of 'mockery', which simply doesn't exist. How do you decide where criticism ends and mockery starts? Furthermore, taking offence is an entirely subjective experience and how would a court decide what is and isn't objectively offensive to any particular individual?

Religions are ideas, they are constructs and as such open to critique and ridicule. People, on the other-hand, have the right not to be subjected to discriminatory behaviour or rhetoric. For example, there is a huge difference between saying 'Islam is bad' and 'All Muslims are bad'. The former is a perspective or opinion, the latter a dangerous and discriminatory generalisation, directed at an entire people.

One only needs to look at the havoc that has been wreaked in Pakistan by an arcane set of blasphemy laws to realise how they are not only unworkable, but outright dangerous. In that country, such laws are frequently abused in order to settle local disputes and persecute religious minorities.

For these, and other reasons, I believe that blasphemy is not something that can be legislated on. It's almost as ridiculous as seeking to outlaw insulting someone's political views or favourite football team. Whilst it is not wise to deliberately cause offence, clearly the real issue here is the fact that some people need to develop thicker skins and just grow up.

In a globalised and inter-connected world of over 6 billion, people will occasionally, or even frequently, hear and see things that they may find offensive. That is just something we have to live with. Furthermore, most of the sensitive souls concerned about offence aren't being forcibly subjected to mockeries of faith; they can choose to close a browser, not look at offensive images or, better still, ignore the ramblings of reactionary preachers seeking to capitalise on the insecurities of the faithful.

Reality aside, the fact remains that many people will continue to find certain things very offensive and a minority will perhaps always decide to express that offence through acts of violence and vandalism. In such instances, the Arab League should be focusing on better policing and law enforcement that prevents people from using offences as an excuse to cause chaos.

This would be a much better use of time and resources and certainly better than trying to establish unworkable laws that belong in the middle ages.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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