Aust cases 1
Aust cases 2
& Free Speech
This page considers some issues regarding the shape and regulation
It covers -
As the preceding page noted, characterisations of blasphemy
and responses by governments and individuals have changed
In the West secularisation has seen governments extend protection
in principle to all Christian denominations (rather than to
an established church) or to regard blasphemy law as no longer
appropriate, with action against offensive statements being
instead treated under restrictions on vilification. In other
parts of the world blasphemy law has variously been seen as
a curiosity or as something that is a central feature of a
national legal code. States such as Pakistan have accordingly
strengthened their blasphemy provisions over the past twenty
years and have actively prosecuted offenders. Prosecutions
have also occurred in states such as Malaysia with provincial
governments of a theocratic bent.
blasphemy on the net
As with defamation,
blasphemous expression online poses several challenges.
The first is simply that the net offers a new mechanism for
the communication of expression.
A corollary is that many people consider that online necessarily
equals free, with offensive text, audio, video and graphics
somehow being situated outside any law. Action by Italian
police, noted later in this profile, to summarily take down
web pages that they considered breached Italian law, is a
reminder that the net is bounded
A third challenge is that the net offers access by a global
audience: "everyone has an opportunity to be horrified
or bored". In the past exposure to offensive content
has generally been localised and restriction (when it occurred)
had a local basis.
Access to content via the global information infrastructure
allows audiences in different locations to be offended, with
potential conflicts about whether a legal offence has occurred
and which jurisdiction has responsibility. Those conflicts
are not merely 'north-south': the European Union for example
faces difficulties as Greek authorities prosecute German and
other satirists who have offended Greek religious sensibilities.
More broadly the internet enables access to content across
borders and thereby fuels extra-legal action such as boycotts,
death threats and violence across the Middle East in response
to satirical cartoons in a Danish newspaper. In the past few
people in Jeddah would have seen such cartoons, few Western
audiences and publishers outside Denmark would have accessed
the cartoons and been able to quickly republish them in responding
to an "Islamic assault on free speech".
Considering prosecutions - and debate about - blasphemy
as terrain in national/international 'culture wars' allows
One conclusion is that responses to blasphemy, online and
off, illustrate conflicting stances on free speech, the role
of the state and secularism in regions such as Northern Europe
and the Middle East. They also illustrate unawareness of or
merely disregard for sensitivities and potential impacts such
as trade boycotts and terrorism. Restrictions in states such
as Pakistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia have been labelled as symptomatic
of obscurantist and theocratic regimes (or broader cultures)
that are associated with systemic human rights abuses and
a politics of resentment.
Critics in the West have accordingly commented that free speech
is a fundamental human right
and that publishers have a duty not to suppress content that
might be offensive to audiences in their own country or in
other nations. Loss of trade or even loss of life is a cost
of free speech and a liberal society.
A second conclusion is that much of the agitation in Western
states has been about reinforcing constituencies rather than
converting oponents or persuading a largely indifferent public
at large. In Australia and the UK, for example, action by
Christian fundamentalists against supposedly blasphemous films,
plays and graphic works has had little support in recent years
from government or the wider community.
Pickets and rallies for example have not secured a large participation
and arguably have aided marketing of the offensive works.
Statements by religious figures, although pitched on behalf
of the general community, have in fact been addressed to 'true
believers' and arguably served to reinforce perceptions among
those believers that they are an elite under threat from the
hostility or merely indifference of their fellow citizens.
A final conclusion is that the evolution of blasphemy law
from overtly preserving society as a whole to merely protecting
individual sensitivities (specifically Christian sensitivities)
undermines the legitimacy of the law's political and social
objectives. Offence is subjective and inevitable: should one
person's distress prevent access by others and require punishment
of the author/publisher in circumstances where the expression
does not lead to public unrest. If unrest does occur, should
that be addressed through public order provisions rather than
by suppression of the offensive content?
2006 saw protests, boycotts and death threats in several nations
during 2006 over publication in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten
newspaper of cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed. That
activity echoed agitation against author Salman Rushdie, including
fatwas calling for his death as a blasphemer and the assassination
of one of his translators.
It highlights cross-cultural issues that pose challenges for
law and for practice in Western economies, for example suggestions
that publishers should engage in self-censorship of content
that is legally permitted but that would be regarded by other
nations as offensive.
In essence, Mohammed is regarded by Muslims as the 'supreme
fulfilment' of a line of figures that included Abraham, Moses
and Jesus. In memorising and reciting verses sent by Allah
(which became the Koran) he completed and perfected the teaching
of God throughout history. Characterisation of Mohammed as
the messenger of Allah encompasses belief that all his actions
were willed by God and that rejection or criticisism of Mohammed
is to reject and criticise Allah.
Mockery or criticism of the Prophet is therefore regarded
as blasphemy, something that as noted later in this profile
is punishable by death in some Islamic states. Islam has traditionally
prohibited images of humans and animals - sometimes denounced
as idolatry and subject to iconoclasm
- and although Islamic artists have depicted Mohammed in illuminated
manuscripts and paintings the Prophet's face (and hands) have
been veiled or left blank.
laughter in the dark
UK journalist Matthew Parris commented on calls for self-censorship
(whether from fear of terrorism and trade boycotts or out
of respect for different cultures) by commenting
protesting against publication are not really doing so because
they themselves do not wish to see these pictures. They
do not want you or me to see them either. They do not want
anyone to see them. They do not want them to exist.
Devising a means by which access to the images will be granted
only to those who positively seek it is unlikely to satisfy
the objectors, and nor should it: their religion has instructed
them to keep God’s world unpolluted by such pictures
and the sentiment and opinion that accompany them. This
they believe to be their God’s demand. I’m afraid
we really do have to decide whether the demand is reasonable.
... Faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible
with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one
must be to deny the others. ... People of faith and people
of none cannot escape attaching themselves to claims that
are inherently offensive — and at the deepest level
— to other people.
But offence implicitly offered, and offence actually taken,
are two different matters. On the whole Christians, for
example, take offence less readily than Muslims. The case
for treating them, in consequence, differently is obvious,
but we should be wary of it. It means groups are allowed
to be as thin-skinned as they wish: to dictate for themselves
how delicately we must tread with them — to create,
as it were, their own definition of respect and require
us to observe it. Those who do this may not always realise
that that they create serious buried resentments among those
of fellow-citizens who are more broad-shouldered about the
trading of insult. ...
I am not happy that we should allow any group to define
the terms on which we deal with their issues, however genuinely
or deeply felt. They for their part should not suppose that
the self-censorship they induce in the rest of Britain does
them any favours in the end. It does not make us sympathetic,
only wary of complaint.
Nevertheless, a conclusion some draw is that for the sake
of a quiet life we might as well refrain from voicing criticisms
we may feel towards any supersensitive group or cause, because
our private thoughts, our private arguments, and those of
our readers, remain our own, and uncensored. Others draw
the conclusion that we should at least avoid gratuitous
insults — the "damn your God" as opposed
to the "I doubt His existence" expressions —
because they hurt real, decent people. ...
The approach is tempting. It avoids hurt. But it overlooks,
in the evolution of belief, the key role played by mockery.
Many faiths and ideologies achieve and maintain their predominance
partly through fear. They, of course, would call it "respect'.
But whatever you call it, it intimidates. The reverence,
the awe — even the dread — that their gods,
their KGB or their priesthoods demand and inspire among
the laity are vital to the authority they wield.
Against reverence and awe the best argument is sometimes
not logic, but mockery. Structures of oppression that may
not be susceptible to rational debate may in the end yield
to derision. When people see that a priest, rabbi, imam
or uniformed official may be giggled at without lightning
striking the impertinent, arguments may be won on a deeper
level than logic.
Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
(New York: Hachette 2007) more feistily argued that believers
in the divine authority of competing sacred texts are "ultimately
incapable" of leaving nonbelievers alone. Religion
not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own
marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to
interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or
adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss
of the next world, but it wants power in this one. This
is only to be expected. It is, after all, wholly man-made.