Melanie McDonagh

The crusade against blasphemy laws only goes so far

The crusade against blasphemy laws only goes so far
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GK Chesterton observed that “Blasphemy depends on belief, and is fading with it. If anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.”

And indeed this week began with an orgy of self-congratulation on the part of Irish pundits about the electorate doing away with a reference to blasphemy in the Irish constitution (no one would have turned out to vote, if the presidential election wasn’t happening the same day). What fewer of them mentioned is that the law hadn’t been used since 1855 (unsuccessfully); blasphemy was only defined by law as an offence to any religion (not specifically Christianity) in 2009; and it only really surfaced as an issue a couple of years ago when the frightful Stephen Fry, in an interview with Gay Byrne, declared that if he were to confront God, he’d call him a maniac for causing cancer in children. “What’s all that about?” said our hero.

That was, in fact, the kind of blasphemy law which is fine; practically never used, and expressive merely of respect towards religion. Its removal from the constitution was however a savage little bid by secularists to ram home that Ireland isn’t any longer a Catholic country, but it wasn’t opposed by the Church.

For a very different take on blasphemy, there’s Pakistan. That rather bears out the Chesterton dictum that blasphemy depends on belief, except in the case of Pakistan we’re talking not so much about faith as fanaticism. Well-meaning pundits, such as Kunwar Shahid in yesterday’s Guardian, who declared that “today we can more easily imagine a tolerant and progressive Pakistan of the future”, think differently though. That’s because a Christian woman, Asia Bibi hasn’t actually been hanged for insulting Mohammed; that was the accusation levelled against her in 2009 by Muslim women, fellow farm labourers, when she had the temerity to take a drink from a cup of water she’d brought for them. They demanded she convert to Islam; she refused. Now, after eight years’ solitary confinement the highest court has decided they are not going to hang her after all for not doing something she’s always denied.

That’s a step towards progress? Only from the weirdest standpoint. It only seems so because there are savage mobs, mobilised at will by clerics, especially in the amiable Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan movement, howling in the streets for the sentence to be carried out, and for the judges who let her live to be killed. By comparison with that lot, certainly Imran Khan, who spoke eloquently about the judgment, does seem like a raving liberal. But until Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are abolished as they stand, so as to cease to be a means for terrorising religious minorities – Ahmaddiya Muslims and Hindus, as well as Christians – and paying off personal scores, well, I think we can hold fire on the assumptions about the bright new liberal dawn. What’s more, Britain’s hefty overseas aid to Pakistan should be linked to this very issue.

But what about blasphemy in Britain? That ceased to be an issue in terms of law some years ago. Yet there is still a residual subversive thrill about sending up the sacred, making play with religious sensibilities; it’s the triumphalism of secularism. But it’s selective, obviously. Let me refer you at this point to the latest book from the Guardian’s cartoonist, Steve Bell: 'Corbyn – the Resurrection'. Yes, it’s got a picture on the front of the Resurrection – after Piero della Francesca – only with Jeremy Corbyn rising from the tomb, with a red flag. A hoot, no? And inside, there’s Corbyn as Christ again, this time in Holman Hunt’s version. But then Steve admits that as far as he’s concerned, JC is pretty well godlike.

Yet he reflects that “the story of this book begins at the start of 2015 [when] 12 people were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris by men… who violently objected to the way the prophet Mohammed had been depicted.”

So what was brave Steve’s response to this? What was his trenchant embrace of blasphemy in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and in defiance of Islamic fundamentalists? Well obviously, it was to have a really good go at Christianity. There followed a characteristically unpleasant series of cartoons lampooning God the Father – I don’t even want to go there – and the Pope, with a savage little skit on Francis for not taking the whole freedom of expression thing sufficiently seriously. As for similarly disobliging depictions of Mohammed? Yes, I looked for those in vain, though brave Steve did take a very hard line on Isis individuals decapitating infidels.

So the considered response of a prominent liberal cartoonist to the murder of cartoonists for alleged blasphemy and disrespecting Islam, was to go for Christianity, lampooning both God the Father and God the son. Plus the Pope. Yes, that’s just about where we’re at when it comes to blasphemy in an age of unbelief. Rather a hit and miss affair, wouldn’t you say?

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a leaderwriter for the Evening Standard and Spectator contributor. Irish, living in London.

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