Should we be laying blasphemy charges in the 21st century?

There have been many times in history where statements made publicly have turned out to be somewhat less than true.   Remember the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” headline in the 1948 US Presidential election?  What about then CIA Director George Tenet’s claim that intelligence pointing to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “slam dunk”?

Then we have German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s 19th century boast ‘God is dead’, meaning that He no longer represented a source of morality or inspiration for humans. Time magazine repeated the statement in question form on its cover in 1966.   In light of the wave of terrorism motivated in part by religion (largely but not exclusively Islam) over the past 40 years I think we can safely conclude  that this belief is about as accurate as that made by the Chairman of IBM in 1943 when he confidently said that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”.

God, in whatever form people conceive him, continues to give billions of people hope, guidance and joy. Yes, religion has led some to incredible heights of creativity and art (listen to a Bach mass and tell me you’re not moved) but it as also driven us to the lowest depths of horror and slaughter (there are far too many examples to list here).  In any event, it appears highly likely that God and religion are here to stay.

An interesting question is raised, however, over what we as societies and governments should do to protect the right of all to worship in whatever way they so choose.  A lot of Western states have this right enshrined in their constitutions and a few go on to say that the State shall neither choose an ‘official’ religion nor favour one over another.  This is all well and good but to what extent should the government go with respect to perceived (or blatant) insults to one particular faith?

I am referring here to blasphemy laws. Most if not all societies had active blasphemy legislation or practice for centuries although it is rare for any Western country to lay charges in this direction these days.  In other parts of the world the practice  is still in place and large segments of the population take blasphemy seriously.  Very seriously.  The Indonesian governor of the state of Jakarta has been charged with insulting Islam (he is ethnic Chinese) and large crowds have called for his ouster – and worse.  And in Pakistan, a Panjab governor was assassinated by one of his bodyguards (who was subsequently treated as a hero) for his criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws.  Don’t forget the late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the death of UK author Salman Rushdie over his alleged religious faux-pas in his book The Satanic Verses back in 1989.

The other day the Danish government  laid blasphemy charges against a 42-year old man who filmed himself burning a copy of the Quran in his backyard.  The move recalls a very different decision not to take similar action against the Danish newspaper that published infamous ‘Muhammad cartoons’ back in 2006, an act that led to several terrorist attacks.

Does it make any sense to charge a citizen with blasphemy today?  In a word, no.

I have often criticised those that willfully and ignorantly make fun of religion – like the American woman who placed pieces of bacon between the pages of the Quran – not because I think they should be punished but because their actions strike me as puerile and little more than attention seeking. I have seen little to suggest that the majority of those who pull these stunts are making any serious point about freedom of anything beyond the freedom to be stupid.  If they want to put themselves out there and incur both the wrath of true believers, as well as the attention of terrorist groups, they should be free to do so.  But I’d like us to stop using the power of the State to regulate this form of expression and I’d like religious groups to ignore the morons and not react so predictably to each attempt at insult and infuriate, let alone serious scholarship that challenges deeply-held convictions.

Charging someone with blasphemy achieves little.  It only provides more media and more publicity for the attention seekers and is almost always counter-productive.  I recall the Catholic protests over Monty Python’s Life of Brian which only made the film more popular.  There is no room in the West in 2017 for this kind of legislation.  We have hate laws, which are controversial enough and hard to prove as I noted in a recent blog, and we should use that tool where warranted (which I think is rare).  I would also suggest that no country needs these laws but am neither in a position to advise nor influence what happens in Pakistan or Indonesia.

Then there are the frivolous accusations.  A Norwegian brewery has been accused of religious insensitivity for putting what may look like an image of the Hindu god Ganesh on a bottle of beer.  It doesn’t look like Ganesh to me – not that I am an expert – but is it really necessary for Hindus to be that tempermental about a beer bottle?  What harm was intended after all?

As in most things, as I have stated before, the best antidote to ignorance is knowledge.  Those who get their kicks poking fun at or viciously attacking religious beliefs should be argued with, not censured.  And for those that end up getting killed by terrorists who claim to be acting  in the name of their deity, while I cannot ever condone that action neither can I feel sorry for the victims.  Sometimes stupidity masking itself poorly as social commentary has its terrible consequences.

We cannot make being an ass illegal.  If we were to do so, we’d have to build a lot more prisons.  We need to address the lack of knowledge with knowledge, not State sanction.



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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