The citizens of Ireland voted recently, in a nationwide referendum, to remove a clause from their constitution that had made blasphemy a criminal offence. Ireland’s now-defunct Defamation Act of 2009 prohibited the “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.”
Just last year, in fact, Irish police opened a brief investigation into whether comedian Stephen Fry had broken the law when he described God as “capricious, mean-minded, stupid” and “an utter maniac” during a televised interview. The case was closed, however, as the police said they had been “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people.”
The overturning of Ireland’s blasphemy law stands in stark contrast to recent news out of Pakistan – where the release from prison of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, accused of blasphemy, has led to widespread protests. In Indonesia, too, many people have been jailed for speaking irreverently against Islam.
Despite its recent defeat, Ireland’s 2009 blasphemy law is an important reminder that laws against blasphemy have hardly been unique to the Muslim world – even in the 21st century.
Understanding the Muslim world
In my research for a literary study of blasphemy, I found that these laws may differ in many respects from their more well-known counterparts in Muslim nations, but they also share some common features with them.
In particular, they’re all united in regarding blasphemy as a form of “injury” – even as they disagree about what, exactly, blasphemy injures.
In the Muslim world, such injured parties are often a lot easier to find. Cultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood said that many devout Muslims perceive blasphemy as an almost physical injury: an intolerable offense that hurts both God himself and the whole community of the faithful.
For Mahmood that perception was brought powerfully home in 2005, when a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Interviewing a number of Muslims at the time, Mahmood was “struck,” she wrote, “by the sense of personal loss” they conveyed. People she interviewed were very clear on this point:
“The idea that we should just get over this hurt makes me so mad.”
“I would have felt less wounded if the object of ridicule were my own parents.”
The intensity of this “hurt,” “wounding” and “ridicule” helps to explain how blasphemy can remain a capital offense in a theocratic state like Pakistan. The punishment is tailored to the enormity of the perceived crime.
Blasphemy and Christians
That may sound like a foreign concept to secular ears. The reality, though, is that most Western blasphemy laws are rooted in a similar logic of religious offense.
As historians like Leonard Levy and David Nash have documented, these laws – dating, mostly, from the 1200s to the early 1800s – were designed to protect Christian beliefs and practices from the sort of “hurt” and “ridicule” that animates Islamic blasphemy laws today. But as the West became increasingly secular, religious injury gradually lost much of its power to provoke. By the mid-20th century, most Western blasphemy laws had become virtually dead letters.
That’s certainly true of the U.S., where such laws remain “on the books” in six states but haven’t been invoked since at least the early 1970s. They’re now widely held to be nullified by the First Amendment.
Yet looking beyond the American context, one will find that blasphemy laws are hardly obsolete throughout the West. Instead, they’re acquiring new uses for the 21st century.
Religious offense in a secular world
Consider the case of a Danish man who was charged with blasphemy, in February 2017, for burning a Quran and for posting a video of the act online.
In the past, Denmark’s blasphemy law had only ever been enforced to punish anti-Christian expression. (It was last used in 1946.) Today it serves to highlight an ongoing trend: In an increasingly pluralist, multicultural West, blasphemy laws find fresh purpose in policing intolerance between religious communities.
In other words, the real question for the 21st century has not been whether blasphemy counts as a crime. Instead it’s been about who, or what – God or the state, religion or pluralism – is the injured party. Instead of preventing injury to God, these laws now seek to prevent injury to the social fabric of avowedly secular states.
That’s true not only of the West’s centuries-old blasphemy laws but also of more recent ones. Ireland’s Defamation Act, for instance, targeted any person who “utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”
With its emphasis on the “outrage” blasphemy may cause among “any religion,” the measure was clearly aimed less at protecting the sacred than at preventing intolerance among diverse religious groups.
The law itself caused outrage of a different sort, however. Advocacy organizations, such as Atheist Ireland, mounted fierce opposition to the law and to the example it set internationally. In late 2009, for instance, Pakistan borrowed the exact language of the Irish law in its own proposed statement on blasphemy to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
Thus, Atheist Ireland warned on its website that “Islamic States can now point to a modern pluralist Western State passing a new blasphemy law in the 21st century.”
Blasphemy in modernity
That warning resonates with the common Western view of blasphemy as an antiquated concept, a medieval throwback with no relevance to “modern,” “developed” societies. Atheist Ireland’s chairperson, Michael Nugent, drew on this tradition when he touted the significance of the recent referendum victory:
“It means that we’ve got rid of a medieval crime from our constitution that should never have been there.”
As Columbia University professor Gauri Viswanathan puts it, blasphemy is often used “to separate cultures of modernity from those of premodernity.” Starting from the assumption that blasphemy can exist only in a backward society, critics point to blasphemy as evidence of the backwardness of entire religious cultures.
I would argue, however, that this eurocentric view is growing increasingly difficult to sustain. If anything, blasphemy has in recent years enjoyed a resurgence in many corners of the supposedly secular West – including prosecutions in Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and Turkey. Perhaps the fate of Ireland’s Defamation Act forecasts a broader reversal of that trend.
This piece incorporates elements of an earlier article published on May 1, 2017.