Two editorials about the new Irish blasphemy law were published yesterday in the Danish press, and our Danish correspondent TB has kindly translated both of them for Gates of Vienna.
The first is from 180grader:
Ireland has just adopted a new blasphemy law intended to prevent the Irish from offending the sentiments of religious people in writing and in speech. From now on it can cost you up to 190,000 kroner (approximately $35,000 to $40,000) if you insult or criticise the religions of the world. And that’s not all: The Irish police are now legally allowed to break into people’s homes and confiscate books which contain blasphemous elements.
It really does sound like a law from the Dark Ages, not from 2009. The fact that a Western democracy is using an idea as insane as this to tighten the country’s blasphemy laws is enough to make one dizzy. Unfortunately, that is what reality looks like in Ireland. So, just for the sake of argument, let’s summarize why this law must never be allowed to spread to the rest of the Western democracies.
If one adopts a law which punishes blasphemy, then it is of course a restriction on freedom of speech. And as we have all learned in recent years, freedom of speech is not worth much if it cannot be used to say the things that people do not want to hear. For example, one cannot undertake critical research if there is no freedom to collect information and question established perceptions. Also there will be no just trials if one is not allowed to speak up freely in a court of law. And there will be no democratic debate if people cannot argue, discuss, and challenge one another. Important core elements of enlightened democracy are being undermined by a tough blasphemy law. That is a very high price to pay for protecting peoples religious feelings.
Apart from that, one can ask whether or not it really is that bad to express one self “blasphemously”. After all, is there anything really wrong in encouraging intense resistance against a religion if that religion so irrational, freedom-depriving, and dangerous that it deserves to be met with intense resistance? None mentioned, none forgotten.
Finally, it is worth noting that blasphemy is a constant source of fun for all of us who think that it is reason that one should respect, and not random religious idiosyncrasies. The world would simply be a much poorer place without blasphemous comics and blasphemous animated cartoons.
Without any notice, leading Irish politicians have removed the freedom which the Irish people have achieved through centuries of strife and suffering. With a single stroke the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, has removed a large portion of freedom of speech and introduced de facto self-censorship. The president’s signature on the blasphemy law means that it is no longer legal to mock, deride, and ridicule religion. The fact the Irish minister of justice, and thereby the government, have more or less let themselves be caught in a technical legal trap does not make the blunder smaller.
Of course this is not sustainable, and one has to wonder why this new law is not tested at the Supreme Court as suggested by the more thoughtful part of the Irish population. But then again, it might not be so strange that the president does not use this obvious opportunity. A few years ago she criticised the publication of the Mohammed Cartoons on completely mistaken premises.
Ireland will experience almost nothing but problems with this new blasphemy law, since it does not relate to consequences. It is only about punishing words — that is, freedom of speech — if someone perceives what is being said or written as an insult or as grossly offensive to an ill-defined group of people who happen to have a religion in common.
On that point the new blasphemy law in looks like a rubber paragraph which can be extremely difficult for the courts to uphold. According to Irish observers, the law actually encourages people to feel offended. And since some groups have a certain talent for cultivating the role of victimization, the criminalization of freedom of speech can end up in juridical nonsense.
But while the blasphemy law it self is a rubber paragraph then the punishment is real enough: A fine of up to 190,000 kroner (approximately $35,000 to $40,000).
One could of course pretend that the new Irish blasphemy law is an internal Irish matter. But in the long run, this view does not hold. Ireland is a member of the EU, and has until now been considered a part of Western civilization, which is built on democracy.
Unconditional freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy, and if you remove it completely or partially, you undermine democracy. Put in another way, Ireland is on a dangerous slippery slope. Without freedom of speech there is no democracy.
Irish society is very influenced by Catholicism, but it is hardly because of, or out of consideration for the Catholic Church, that they have now implemented the criminalization of criticism of religion. If that were the case, it would have happened long time ago.
On the whole, Christian religions are not as sensitive anymore, and they have found their role in democratic societies. In fact, Christian religions thrive in democracies.
But Ireland is not the first country tinkering with freedom of speech. No matter how hard it is to understand this defeatist position towards one’s own values, freedom of speech has been subjected to pressure in a number of democracies in our Western civilization.
Great Britain almost adopted a law similar to the one now being implemented in Ireland, but thanks to the brave efforts of the British actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson, among others, British democracy and the British people are off the hook.
Had Atkinson’s Irish colleague Dave Allen been alive he would have most definitely protested against this violation of freedom of speech. As a punishment, the lawmakers, with the president in the lead, should be confined and forced to watch every single one of Dave Allen’s shows, which were built on mocking, deriding, and ridiculing religion more than anything else.
The rest of us would just like to enjoy intelligent humour at its best.