Blasphemy, Insult and Freedom of Speech

Meredith Doig / 11 December 2014

The IQ2 video here – “God and his Prophets Should be Protected from Insult” – pits two extremely articulate speakers – Uthman Badar and Julian Burnside – against two other equally convincing speakers – Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Tom Keneally. It goes for an hour and a half but it’s well worth the effort. Below we republish a discussion of the debate by Ralph Seccombe, former Federal public servant and member of the Hunter Valley Skeptics.

Blasphemy Laws Unreasonably Infringe Freedom of Speech

The Netherlands parliament has approved a motion to scrap law that makes insulting God a crime. The ultimate success of this move is in doubt but it should inspire Australia to follow suit and abolish the crime of blasphemy.

Some light was thrown on this topic by a recent IQ2 debate in Sydney, on the proposition that God and his prophets should be protected from insult. The speakers for the motion were Uthman Badar, spokesman for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical organisation which seeks to restore the caliphate, and Julian Burnside, barrister and a hero of the miniseries Bastard Boys. Speakers for the negative were Yassmin Abdel-Magied, founder of Youth without Borders and former Young Australian Muslim of the Year, and the author Tom Keneally.

Uthman Badar was certainly the most interesting speaker. Not one to muck about, he declared that he was not a liberal; free speech was not the default setting. Secular liberalism was imposed on both West and East by stealth and military strength. Judaism and Christianity had crumbled—not so Islam, which still resisted. “It is the quest to break this resistance in which these insults come: the quest to impose secular liberalism, to consolidate the victory eternally, to agitate and provoke, to add insult to injury, to kick a man when he is down. There is no glory in that, and there’s no glory in asking people to accept that. The free world seeks to dominate and impose, to extend its power, exploit others and perpetuate its military, political and epistemic violence, perpetuating Orientalist fantasies about Muslims being prone to violence, backward, unable to manage themselves….”

Badar argued that respect for others demanded self-censorship, the avoidance of insulting God and his prophets. “The fact that we are even still having this debate, to be entirely frank, is the ultimate insult.”

Badar spoke powerfully but did not make clear why his respect for those of a different view is consistent with the demanded restriction on their freedom of speech.

Silently hanging over our civilised debate was violence like the murder of Theo van Gogh, maker of the film Submission, and the attack on schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai. Salman Rushdie, on whom a mortal fatwa was imposed in 1989, was mentioned in the introduction by the chair, Simon Longstaff. Badar queried whether the Western world was really in a position to lecture others about violence, citing the killing of little girls in Afghanistan by drones bombing their homes on top of them. “It is this broader context of provocation in which global Muslim reaction to insults comes.”

Badar called for respect for all beliefs and sanctities. Apparently forgetting which side of the debate he was on, Keneally echoed this with a rhetorical flourish, claiming that if certain beliefs were precious to many of our fellow-citizens, they were precious to all of us. Sorry, I can’t agree. I do not have the agility to respect simultaneously the beliefs of the Greens, the Palmer United Party, Labor and the Liberals—or atheism, Scientology, homeopathy, Catholicism, evidence-based reasoning, Holocaust denial and Wicca. That’s for the sets of ideas. As for the adherents to such sets of ideas, I’m not sure that I can achieve automatic respect in all cases. I have no cause for complaint, because I’m not confident they would all respect a person of my views and values. What I do sign up for is respect of their right to free speech, with minimal exclusions such as incitement to violence.

In Victoria it is illegal to incite hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, a person or class of persons on religious grounds, though the relevant legislation also includes provisions to protect free expression. Wikipedia reports a case arising from “controversial remarks about Islam.” If so, it was a matter of remarks about an ideology coming under notice of a law about a class of persons, with the effect that the freedom to comment on an ideology comes under threat.

Burnside related how he receives mail calculated to incite hatred of Muslims. He responds not by going along with the incitement but by being offended. Why can’t we trust people to make up their own minds in response to incitements to hate, as he does?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied pointed out that freedom of speech is established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though when an insult was aimed to incite hatred, it moved out of the realm of free speech. I have not found this qualification in the declaration. Like other speakers, Abdel-Magied drew a distinction between criticism, which was acceptable, and insult, which was not. However, she also acknowledged that one priest’s or one imam’s criticism is another man’s insult to God. Keneally also wondered who would decide what the boundary line was between criticism and insult.

A member of the audience asked the affirmative side whether religion could really be expected to come out the Dark Ages in what it regards as acceptable behaviour, such as on the part of gay people, if you didn’t allow open criticism without the threat of calling it insult. Could religion be expected to grow without it?

Another expressed disappointment with the team for the negative, lamenting that, instead of hearing vigorous support for freedom of speech, he had heard four speakers giving rather lukewarm defences of it. Where was the advocacy for Salman Rushdie, the people who translated his books, the Danish cartoonists, the cartoon Jesus and Mo and the idea that ridicule could actually be satire, a really good way of making a point? Who was looking after the interests of those people and the people who admire them? “Who’s going to defend me when I am offended by absurd claims from the faithful?” This sally won a round of applause.

Another questioner pointed out that we don’t have laws protecting unicorns, fairies etc.

In response to questions, Burnside supported penalising those who insulted God and his prophets and observed that there was a distinct undercurrent of Islamophobia in discourse in Australia; he also drew a parallel between people criticising Mohammed now and those who criticised Moses in 1930s Germany. Most criticism of religion was levelled against Islam.

Particularly as much of the debate turned on the taking of offence, perhaps with an element of competition in that regard, I may say that I take offence at these remarks, which I think are unfair on those who would criticise Islam. The term Islamophobia suggests a parallel with homophobia: “it ain’t natural; it’s plain wrong; it’s against God’s law; it threatens my (heterosexual) marriage and—the very witty and compelling argument—it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Not all comment on Islam is at this level. Nor must criticism of Mohammed be equivalent to German actions of the 1930s. Such suggestions are indeed offensive. Some may find them intimidating. I also wonder about the amount of criticism of Islam vs of other religions: it’s not hard to find critiques of Catholicism, the pope and the Catholic Church.

According to the IQ2 Oz website, the laws of most Australian states and territories continue to prohibit blasphemy. “For example, in NSW a person may still be prosecuted for the common law offence of blasphemy if their purpose is to engage in ‘scoffing or reviling’. Put simply, citizens may not mock or insult God or the Prophets.”

Our present freedoms, such as they are, are hard-won. If you want martyrs for freedom of speech under Western law, you don’t have to go very far back in history. The offence of insulting God chalked up the teenager Thomas Aikenhead, hanged in Britain in 1696, and Jean-François de la Barre in France in 1766. The common-law prohibition of blasphemy is an anachronism, dormant since the nineteenth century but still on the books as a threat.

The IQ2 debate serves to clarify the issues. Let’s avoid the need to draw—or fabricate—a distinction between acceptable criticism and unacceptable insult. Let’s acknowledge that there is no necessary progression from insult to hatred to violence sufficient to justify outlawing insult. Let us not run an offendedness competition or base law on a supposed right not to be offended. Let’s abolish blasphemy law.

If the audience vote on the debate is anything to go by, there is public support. Before the debate the vote was 24% undecided, 18% for, 58% against. After the debate: 13% undecided, 22% for, 65% against the motion that God and his prophets should be protected from insult.

Postscript, on honour of Human Rights Day 2013, which occurs in December: religions don’t have human rights. Humans have human rights.

ralph seccombeRalph Seccombe is a former public servant (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the United Nations). He has published on international drug control issues and travel, especially sailing. In recent years he has worked as a volunteer for Lifeline, the Sydney Heritage Fleet, the Hunter Valley Skeptics and an environmental organisation.


All the more reason.