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Blasphemy Laws and Human Rights

November 4, 2010

There’s an interesting report out by Freedom House called Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights. It’s well worth a read.

Human rights, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are held to be universal, inalienable and indivisible; they apply to everyone, depend on a persons humanity rather than state, and are all equally important. However one right is widely seen as the most important right, not in that it should take precedence over other rights, but that with out it, all other rights are meaningless. Indeed, A.C. Grayling calls it the human right. It’s the right to free expression.

There is an important distinction to be made between language that offends and language that incites hatred and violence. The latter is the one exception to the right to free expression explicitly called for by the UN. Attempts to increase the number and scope of blasphemy laws (Ireland enacted such a law this year) are naturally led towards language that tries to equate the two. They are not equivalent.

There is no question that discrimination based on religion or belief is a genuine grievance for many and in some instances leads to limitations on freedom of religion. However, the notion that insults or criticism aimed at a religion or religious doctrine somehow restrict adherents’ ability to freely practice their religion has been rejected by renowned experts and human rights activists, who have emphasized the interdependence and indivisibility of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and all other human rights. … Moreover, there is little evidence to support the argument that prohibiting defamation of religions is an effective means of combating racial and religious hatred. In fact, the application of blasphemy laws appears to instigate and exacerbate communal conflict rather than prevent it.

I’m just starting to go through the whole report, but the introduction, and other articles that I’ve read, strongly emphasise this last point: blasphemy laws do not increase tolerance; they are in fact used as tools by the intolerant. The fundamentalist groups of any religion are generally the first to take offence and the first to claim orthodoxy, so they are most likely to react to an “offensive” argument with a charge of blasphemy. This lack of tolerance by fundamentalist sects leads to a shutting down of rational discourse and self-censorship.

You have the right to practise religion, but you do not have the right not to be offended. I may be offended by your political views, but that doesn’t stop you being able to express them. The same goes with religious views. If you want to express (and practice) them, fine. If I want to say they’re nonsense, that’s also fine. You may well be offended. So what?

While blasphemous expression can at times be reprehensible and deliberately provocative, it is essential to distinguish it from the kind of expression that may be legitimately restricted under international law. Freedom of expression includes the right to be controversial, insulting, or offensive, even when such speech targets ideas that are devoutly held beliefs for some. This principle was affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the Handyside v. United Kingdom case of 1976, in which the court found that expression was protected even if it “offends, shocks, and disturbs,” adding, “such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society.’”

States are not able to legislate on what I can and cannot say unless it is “necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, or public health or morals”. Blasphemy laws fall well outside this scope, and if states start to “crack down” on blasphemy it would be a slippery slope to a world where we can never be sure whether what we’re saying might cause offence and lead us into trouble.We need argument, not laws.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Nicky permalink
    November 8, 2010 12:40 AM

    This is actually a side-effect of freedom of speech that I find difficult to deal with sometimes, especially with comedy. What offends me may be hilarious to someone else. But I still believe in people’s right to make jokes about anything they like as long as it’s not inciting hatred or violence. And even if I think it is in bad taste.

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