The LA Times published an editorial today about the threat blasphemy laws represent to free speech around the world. You might be thinking that such laws only exist as remnants of another age but you’d be wrong. In fact, blasphemy laws have been adopted relatively recently in some countries as an effort to curb “hate speech.”
On Tuesday, the Christian governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam, a penalty that shocked many inhabitants of the majority-Muslim country known for its tolerance and pluralism. The blasphemy charge against Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was based on a video in which he was recorded telling voters they were being misled if they believed that a verse in the Koran forbade them from voting for a non-Muslim.
On the other side of the world, the British writer and actor Stephen Fry is breathing easier after officials in Ireland announced that they wouldn’t charge him for violating that nation’s blasphemy law for joking in a 2015 television interview that God, if he existed, was “quite clearly a maniac.”
But the police had investigated Fry under the law, which, far from being a relic, was enacted in 2009. The law makes it illegal to utter or publish any material “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” in which the intent and result is “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”
The editorial notes that this language blaming outrage on speech was pushed in the UN Human Rights Council by Muslim nations who wanted to equate criticism of religion with discrimination (Islamophobia). The editorial notes that, according to a 2010 study by Freedom House, such laws are often used to protect the majority faith and to restrict the freedom of speech of minority faiths. From the Freedom House report:
All blasphemy laws carry inherent flaws that make them especially likely to lead to human rights abuses. They inevitably fail to address the issue of what exactly constitutes blasphemy, leaving enormous discretion in the hands of prosecutors, judges, and accusers who may be influenced by political or personal priorities. They also vary considerably in the punishments they prescribe, since unlike other crimes, the victims of and damage caused by blasphemy are uncertain or intangible; acts covered by blasphemy laws can be interpreted as relatively mild offenses against individual feelings, offenses against the beliefs of an entire community, or grave attacks on a deity. These weaknesses leave blasphemy laws open to selective, arbitrary, or discriminatory enforcement, which worsens existing problems in countries with shaky institutions and mars the human rights credentials of otherwise well-functioning democracies. No matter what the political environment, however, blasphemy laws lend the power of the state to particular religious authorities and effectively reinforce extreme views, since the most conservative or hard-line elements in a religious community are generally the quickest to take offense and the first to claim the mantle of orthodoxy.
The LA Times doesn’t mention this, but it’s striking how similar this debate is to the one we’re having currently about free speech on campus. There is a pretty good argument that can be made in favor of the idea that intersectionality operates like a religious faith. Quoting Andrew Sullivan:
If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it.
This impulse to stop the heretics from speaking is a bad one. It’s true that religious debates have the ability to generate outrage but that’s because people on all sides of those debates believe they are important, even fundamental to one’s outlook on life. Getting the government (or the university) involved in policing speech between various faiths is a step backward for human rights. If people can’t discuss religion freely then they aren’t truly free.