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Time for Australia to abandon blasphemy laws?

on 15/06/2019

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Murder, theft and blasphemy.

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All three are breaches of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments as well being against the law.

And while there are no moves to decriminalise killing or stealing, Western nations are removing blasphemy laws from the statutes or re-writing them under racial vilification laws.

At the same time, some Muslim countries are reviving or creating blasphemy laws.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

“(Protester 1) “Enough is enough, you know, they just keep putting us down. (Protester 2) You cannot mock, the greatest, most influential, human being that ever walked the face of this earth (jeers).”

Two of the voices of protest on the streets of Sydney during riots over the Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic film that mocks the Prophet Mohammad.

Mocking, holding in contempt, cursing or reviling God or, in that case, the Muslim Prophet, are acts of blasphemy.

Australia’s blasphemy laws are mostly rooted in the nation’s Christian heritage and British legal origins.

“For the most part that’s true, although certainly none of the blasphemy laws in either of the United Kingdom, which has now abolished blasphemy in England and Wales but not in Scotland has abolished the offence of blasphemy, but certainly they did have ecclesiastical roots or foundations in that way and so what remains of blasphemy in Australia it really differs by states.”

That’s Helen Pringle, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales.

She says the last execution for blasphemy in Britain was in 1697 and that it’s widely believed the last blasphemy prosecution in Australia was in 1871 in New South Wales.

But Dr Pringle says she’s found people were prosecuted in Australia for the use of blasphemous words up until the 1930s.

Dr Pringle says one Australian jurisdiction to totally abolish the offence of blasphemy is the Australian Capital Territory back in 1996.

But she says elsewhere around the country, Tasmania’s Criminal Code and Police Offences Act still contain provisions and in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia there are legislative sections that imply common law references to blasphemy have not been abolished in those states.

Dr Pringle says generally, in Western countries, the emphasis on freedom of speech and the creation of anti-discrimination, racial and religious vilification laws have seen a move away from blasphemy laws.

“So in all those countries, you know really, you’ve got a move against blasphemy. It’s no longer you know, a popularly supported charge and I think most people think of it as archaic and, if not dead, at least on its last legs and they think it should be on its last legs and dealt a final blow, but in countries like Pakistan, Pakistan and some of the Middle Eastern countries at least I think there’s people who believe that blasphemy prosecutions should continue and in fact I think there’s been some move towards the revival of what, even in those countries, was a fairly archaic offence.”

Gary Bouma is an Anglican priest and a professor of sociology at Monash University in Melbourne.

He says for the most part Christians have shown greater tolerance towards the mocking of God as opposed to how Muslims react to any contempt towards the Prophet Mohammad.

“Really the things that one, in a sense, chooses to be offended by vary widely from place to place and for the most part Christians have chosen not to be offended by humour involving God, for example. A lot of our cartoons, our humorous writers would have no material if they couldn’t send up God or belief, or Christian churches, I mean it’s almost to the point in Australia that if you’re not being sent up, you’re not being taken seriously.”

Gary Bouma says mounting arguments to do away with any remaining blasphemy laws in Australia are somewhat pointless.

“Certainly within Australia the idea of trying to get a trial on a blasphemy case would be so difficult as to make, you know, why bother abolishing the legislation, the people have said we aren’t going to attend to it if you try to make us, you’re going to have a hard time, good luck.”

Jeremy Patrick, of the University of Southern Queensland, has studied blasphemy laws in Australia and internationally with a particular focus on Pakistan.

Dr Patrick says there’s been several prosecutions in Pakistan for blasphemy as well as temporary suspensions of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook for allegedly blasphemous posts.

But he says there’s also a trend towards private vigilante justice.

“If someone is accused of blasphemy, there’s almost mob justice instantly reacting and several individuals accused of blasphemy, even if they’ve been acquitted by the courts have then been hurt or killed by private vigilante justice and there’s definitely a major social movement to suppress criticism of religion in Pakistan.”

Dr Patrick says the risk of blasphemy laws being abused in Pakistan illustrates how dangerous they can be.

“We have the recent case of a Christian girl in Pakistan, who, from the information we have, may have had an intellectual disability of some type. She was accused of having burned a copy of the Koran and it turned out, what actually happened, from the information we have available to us is that she was in fact framed by a Muslim religous leader and fortunately she was acquitted and is now in safe hands, but again it was a very difficult situation for her I’m sure and a very fraught situation as the danger of being accused of blasphemy is so high in Pakistan.”

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom describes itself as an independent, bipartisan body that monitors religious freedom conditions around the world and recommends policies to the U-S Congress.

The Commission’s deputy director for policy and research, Elizabeth Cassidy, says blasphemy laws are often used to restrict individuals’ human rights.

“Looking at it from a human rights perspective blasphemy laws protect religions over individuals or beliefs over individuals so it empowers governments to impose their views of how one should express their religion, what one can say about religion as opposed to allowing people to practise their religion and in fact blasphemy laws, although they’re often justified by countries that have them say they need them to protect religious harmony, interfaith harmony, in fact in the countries there they have these laws they often result in violence and human rights abuses.”

Ms Cassidy says even when blasphemy laws are written to protect more than one religion, they will still leave others unprotected and so open to persecution.

She says in some of the countries that fought for freedom from the oppression of dictators in the Middle East and Africa during the period of mass protest known as the “Arab Spring”, a new kind of domination can be found in the form of such laws.

“In a number of countries in other parts of the world, in particular, as I mentioned, Muslim countries where the state is enforcing Islam where Islam is the official religion and the state is an Islamic state that enforces that through its laws, a number of them still protect only Islam, or if they protect multiple religions as I mentioned in the case of Egypt it’s limited to certain religions, officially recognised religions and doesn’t protect everybody’s beliefs and in some of the “Arab Spring” countries there’s actually been an uptick in the number of charges under these types of laws whether blasphemy, offending Islam, offending religion in the past couple of years.”

In Western countries, blasphemy laws have also been constructed with a dominant religion in mind.

Helen Pringle, from the University of New South Wales, says Muslims discovered this in the late 1980s when they tried to use Britain’s blasphemy laws to prosecute the author Salman Rushdie for the content of his book, The Satanic Verses.

“Which was the subject of an action by Muslims in England, who claimed that this was blasphemy and the case was dismissed on the basis, not that it wasn’t blasphemy, but that the blasphemy laws in England, and this is presumed to apply to Australia as well, that the blasphemy laws in England only extended to the Christian religion, and possibly only to the Church of England. So when that case was dismissed, it was widely thought that the blasphemy laws only applied more narrowly to Christianity.”

The outrage that resulted from the book’s publication led to Rushdie receiving death threats, including from the Supreme Leader of Iran.

The vice president of Muslims Australia, Ikbal Patel, admits there’s a fine line to be walked if blasphemy laws are not to threaten freedom of speech.

But he says they can also protect the rights of people and their religion to be respected.

“It is one that has to be treaded very, very carefully so that you don’t in any way impinge on the freedom of expression, freedom of speech of individuals, but at the same time I think any freedom also brings about the need for responsible behaviour so that you do no cause any form of communal strife or upset the balance of people living in harmony and I think that’s where it is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but if you are going to engage in bringing about blaspemy laws then it has to be one that is very, very balanced and carefully thought out.”

Mr Patel says he doesn’t support the prison or even death sentences that some countries have handed down to people found guilty of blasphemy.

He maintains it would be better to take the opportunity to educate an offender on the hurt they have caused and help them understand the religion and culture they’ve targeted.

The problematic nature of writing blasphemy laws has contributed to them either being removed by countries or not being used.

In other cases, some aspects of them have been incorporated into racial or religious vilification laws.

Anglican priest Gary Bouma is a strong supporter of Australia’s racial and vilification laws which he says are working well.

“When you get to vilification, you’re talking about dehumanising language that leads to or incites violence and those who describe them in any other way are not presenting their case correctly. What they are saying is they would like to be able to say nasty things about religious group X in public that might lead to violence, that denigrates this group even if what they say is untrue now I’m sorry, that’s a violation of one of the ten commandments.”


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