The Dangers of Blasphemy

Theo Hobson, a man who wears a formidable mustache, comments on a religious/political quandrary on CiF: How can Britain assert secular liberal values against the threat of Islamic extremism when it isn’t a secular state itself. The point of Hobson’s article, which he goes on to make rather well, is that in order to remove the temptation of mixing religion with politics, the Anglican church needs to go cold turkey and excise itself as the religion of the State.

The hyprocricy redolent in the current position in Britain is a point well made by Hobson. But there is another reason why religion should be removed from the state machinery in a secular liberal democracy; namely the Blasphemy Law, which was last prosecuted successfully in Britain in 1979.

Ten years later, Muslims in Britain tried to include Islamic law in the British Blasphemy Law in 1989 (the current law on blasphemy in Britain protects Christianity alone), after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa and a death sentence against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

The Blasphemy Law has been extended in ex-colonial countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh and has been used by the fundamentalists to persecute minorities, most notably the Ahmadiyya and Catholics.

In Pakistan the law can allow the word of a single witness to incriminate a “heretic”. As for Bangladesh, according to WAF:

In Bangladesh, Islamic fundamentalist groups continue to grow in strength and frequently take the law into their own hands. The resurgence of salish (village arbitration council) proceedings are targeting rural women and most of the victims are accused of adultery. Two reported deaths from salish verdicts during 1993, in which one woman was publicly stoned and later committed suicide and another woman was burned to death, are examples of the extralegal and often fatal verdicts that salish leaders impose. Islamic fundamentalist groups have pronounced fatwas which have resulted in the burning of schools and offices, and prevented development workers and activists from working among the poor. Individuals and groups are targets when they directly challenge the power and income of local religious leaders.

The majority recommendations of a Law Commission Report of 1985 was that the discriminatory laws of blasphemy be removed from the status book in Britain. In April 1989, Tony Benn introduced a Bill into the House of Commons entitled ‘A Bill to abolish persecution for the expression of opinion on matters of religion’. It was, however, dropped without any debate.