Friday, 1 February 2008

Archbishop calls for new, improved blasphemy law

When the government persuaded Labour backbenchers not to back a recent Lib Dem amendment that would have abolished the blasphemy law, it promised to introduce proposals of its own. However, it said that it wanted to consult the Church of England first.

Now we know what that means. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he has no objection to the repeal of the law against blasphemy (he argued that it was 'unworkable', rather than accepting that it's just plain wrong in a free society, but I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies). However, Dr. Williams made it clear that he wants something in return. He argues that whatever replaces the law should 'send a signal' about what is acceptable. 

'Replaces' ? Ah, I see: as far as the C of E is concerned, the debate is not about abolishing what Lib Dem MP Evan Harris called 'this outdated, illiberal and discriminatory law', but about improving it. It seems what they're after is a replay of the debate (which they lost) over the Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

The Archbishop calls for legislation that punishes 'thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting.'  This is wrong on so many levels. Firstly, in a free society, the presumption should be in favour of freedom of expression, with any curtailment having to be argued for on a case by case basis. Secondly, we already have laws that protect against language that stirs up violence and hatred against particular groups. Thirdly, blasphemy laws don't protect people, they protect God. In a plural society in which there are multiple notions of the divine, it's absurd and impractical to have laws that defend any or all of them. And, from a religious perspective, it can be argued that God doesn't need legal protection: to argue that this is necessary is surely a sign of the weakness of religion rather than its strength.

As Norm says of Williams' proposal: 'Not so much out of the frying pan and into the fire as out of the aforesaid utensil into a raging conflagration - of the type, even, dear to certain kinds of wrathful believer.' The government should resist any pressure by the religious establishment to sneak in a new, improved blasphemy law by the back door, and stick by its intention to abolish it completely. Religious interest groups can't have a veto against this long overdue legislation. Sometimes it seems as though the Church just can't let go of its last vestiges of political power.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, we see an example of what can happen when religious groups are allowed to determine the limits of free expression. 23 year old journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has been sentenced to death by a religious court for distributing 'blasphemous' material. His offence? Downloading material from the internet about the role of women in Islamic societies.

All credit to the Independent for its high-profile campaign on behalf of Kambaksh. Make sure you sign the petition here.

No comments: