Blasphemy laws and punishments from countries around the world

Amid contemporary debate over the boundaries of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, Ireland is going to the polls in a referendum which could see blasphemy removed as an offence 

Ben Kelly
Thursday 25 October 2018 08:45
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Stephen Fry under police investigation for blasphemy after branding God an 'utter maniac'

On Friday, voters in Ireland are going to the polls in a referendum to decide whether the offence of blasphemy should be removed from the country’s constitution.

Blasphemy is generally defined as the act of insulting or speaking sacrilegiously about God or other sacred things. In an era where religious freedom and freedom of speech often find themselves coming into conflict, it’s no surprise that blasphemy is back as a point of debate.

While this is seen to be another step on Ireland’s road to modernising its law – and indeed highlighting the separation between church and state – over a quarter of countries around the world are still maintaining and introducing laws prohibiting blasphemy.

Blasphemy laws around the world

A 2017 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom found 71 countries to have laws which criminalised views deemed to be blasphemous, across all religions.

Blasphemy laws are most common in majority Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as regions of southeast Asia. However, they are also to be found in pockets of the west, such as Poland, Italy, and Ireland.

The punishments for these transgressions vary from fines, to prison sentences, to the death penalty. A 2016 study by the Freedom of Thought report found that 43 countries allow a prison term for blasphemy, while it is punishable by death in six countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

Blasphemy was abolished as an offence in England and Wales in 2008, but it remains in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Famous blasphemy cases in recent years

Various high profile blasphemy cases from around the world have drawn international attention in recent years.

When the BBC broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera on UK television in 2005, they received over 63,000 complaints about the show’s depiction of Christian figures including Jesus – but attempted charges were rejected.

There was global backlash from Muslims in 2005 over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammed as a cartoon in a Danish newspaper. This brought the clash between freedom of speech and freedom of religion to the fore of international debate, and reared its head again with devastating consequences when the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered in Paris in 2015 by Islamic extremists.

In Denmark in 2017, a man who posted a video of himself burning the Quran on Facebook avoided trial when politicians abolished a centuries-old blasphemy law.

In Indonesia this summer, a Buddhist woman named Meiliana was sentenced to 18 months in prison for complaining about a noisy mosque in 2016 – something which sparked the burning and ransacking of Buddhist temples as a public response at the time.

In Pakistan, a Christian woman called Asia Bibi has been facing execution for six years after allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed during a row with other women over water in 2009. She would become the first woman executed under the country’s blasphemy laws.

In August 2018, Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan pledged to revive a campaign to impose global blasphemy laws at the UN. A previous attempt, spearheaded by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, ended in failure in 2011.

Ireland’s blasphemy law

Ireland’s ban on blasphemy was included in the country’s constitution of 1937, which states that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

The Defamation Act of 2009 clarified that someone would commit this offence if they publish or utter “matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”

In 2017, Irish police looked into complaints over comments made by Stephen Fry about God on an RTE interview, but did not pursue the matter. In fact, no one has ever been charged over blasphemy in the history of the Irish state, leading many to view the law as redundant.

The constitution which cemented blasphemy as an offence is often seen as quite an old-fashioned, conservative text, and has been slowly undergoing a process of renewal.

Alterations to the constitution require a referendum, such as those in recent years on same sex marriage and abortion. Friday’s referendum is being held alongside the Irish presidential election, which is one reason why it has not been as discussed as previous votes on social issues.

Another reason for the low key campaign is because it is generally accepted people will vote to remove the offence. A poll last week by The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI showed 51 per cent of the public would vote to remove the offence, with 19 per cent in favour of retaining it: the rest are undecided.

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