A call for the end of blasphemy laws

When I was quite young, growing up in London (Ontario), an elderly man would make and take care of an outdoor ice rink for the neighbourhood kids. He would not charge anything for this and – yes I know this is nostalgic! – there is nothing better than playing hockey outside during a Canadian winter. Of course those of us with hockey sticks had to compete for space with those who just wanted to ‘skate around’ but we all appreciated a place to breathe in the cold air and have a lot of fun.

One day an argument broke out between my ‘team’ and the other side and I ended up telling someone to ‘go to hell’. As this was 1969 or so this was scandalous and some tattletale went to inform the elderly man who promptly banned me from the site, telling me to ‘go to hell!’ My mom was not very happy when I told her what I had done.

‘Go to hell’ is obviously among the tamer things one can say in anger these days but it was pretty bad back then. We were taught to be very careful in using any language that was deemed ‘foul’ or dismissive of anything remotely religious. ‘Damn’ was a very serious epithet and I still recall reading books in which the four-letter word was usually rendered ‘d___’. Religion was treated reverently in the public sphere and everyone belonged to some church or other. I did not know anyone who did not go to church on a regular basis (I was raised Catholic) and when I did meet a boy who told me his family was not particularly faithful I was shocked!

Throughout history societies have treated religions with kid gloves and looked down upon (to put it mildly) any form of dissent. Blasphemy laws were the rule, especially where states or regimes had an official religion (in many lands the maxim cuius regio, eius religio reigned – essentially the faith of the ruler became the faith of the ruled). Whoever questioned this or questioned any religious dogma suffered horrible punishment, including torture and execution.

There thankfully appears to be a bright spot on the horizon. According to The Economist blasphemy laws are on the outs in many liberal countries. Even those lands where penalties for taking God’s name in vain are still on the books they are rarely enforced. Despite this ‘progress’, however, The Economist goes on to warn that “it is getting more risky to criticise religious ideas” in conjunction with the “rise in the seductive but dangerous notion that people have a right not to be offended.”

What does any of this have to do with a blog on terrorism? A lot as it happens with respect to a certain type of terrorism, i.e. religious violent extremism. Terrorists who condone, promote or carry out acts of violence in the name of a faith are not surprisingly very intolerant of dissent. They claim a monopoly on belief and punish anyone who strays from that narrow imposed view. Good examples are Al Qaeda, Islamic State, the Taliban and Boko Haram when it comes to Islamist extremism. There are equally compelling examples among Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish extremists (for a much longer analysis of religious terrorism have a look at my forthcoming book When Religion Kills).

My mother always taught me that if you have nothing nice to say it is better to say nothing at all. I suppose this is still good advice in most cases, but we as a society we have to retain the right to disagree and be critical of other views (albeit politely and not like we see on social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube). We can all hold strong opinions but we cannot try to impose ours on others and we cannot act violently towards those who do not see eye to eye with us. That is what terrorists do.

We are becoming less religious in a general sense across the board: of course this does not mean that every country is adopting secularism. Those who profess ‘none of the above’ when it comes to faith (in the 2011 census nearly a quarter – 23.9% – of Canadians said they were not part of any religion) may indeed be on the rise in some states but it is nevertheless rude to make fun of another’s beliefs. That is just bad manners as my mom told me.

I often use the line ‘there is no fun in FUNdamentalism’ as I find many conservative people of faith to be killjoys. I do not, however, recommend laws to quash their beliefs or advocate killing them as IS does with anyone not subscribing to their aberrant form of Islam. It would be nice if the devout adopted a similar attitude towards me. And it would be great to see he remainder of the world’s blasphemy laws to be struck from the legal code. These have outlived their purpose, if they ever truly had one.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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