Blasphemy: the last rites

Few people seem to have noticed, but the law of blasphemy was repealed yesterday, among a rag-bag of measures contained in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. A last-ditch stand by supporters of the ancient offence was defeated in the House of Commons on Tuesday by 378 votes to 57. So blasphemy now joins witchcraft, homosexuality and the use of vestments in Anglican churches as things that the law of England is no longer officially bothered about. Instead of which, the new Act targets expressions of hatred on grounds of sexual orientation and the possession by individuals of "extreme" pornographic images, regardless of how such images were produced, or why. Thus does the statute book unerringly reflect the prejudices and obsessions of the age in which it is written.

Much of the credit for this long-overdue repeal must of course go to Stephen Green, the publicity-seeker who goes by the nomme de guerre of Christian Voice (whether or not this organisation has any members besides himself is something that has never been definitively established, but the answer seems to be "no"). It's unlikely that a government that spends most of its waking hours dreaming up unnecessary new laws rather than repealing old ones would have paid any attention to this particular historical relic had it not been for last year's attempt to prosecute the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer the Opera. As the Conservative MP Edward Leigh put it in Tuesday's debate, "there are tens of thousands of lines of legislation and laws that are never used, so why have the Government focused, laser-like, on this particular law?" Nice one, Stephen.

I've been reading the debate, which like many Parliamentary debates on seemingly trivial issues (foxhunting is another example) produced passion and aroused interest out of all proportion to its importance. Those MPs, most of them Conservatives, who were prepared to fight in the last ditch to (at least symbolically) oppose repeal seemed to be motivated mainly by a sense of grievance, almost a siege mentality. The government, in the person of Maria Eagle, argued that the crime of blasphemy could "be seen as a blot on our otherwise extremely good record on combating discrimination and promoting human rights", privileging as it did one religion above others, and indeed giving special status to (in the old judicial formula) the "formularies of the Church of England". But that wasn't how it looked to Ann Widdecombe:

We all remember the outbreak of outrage among the Muslim community when the Danish cartoons were published. If ever one wanted an example of a propensity for civil strife, one had it there. However, the point that I consider more relevant is that it served to demonstrate that Christianity does not receive equal treatment in our country. I was one of the worshippers who arrived at Westminster cathedral shortly after some of the Pope's remarks had been rather badly misinterpreted, and I was confronted with banners being held by members of the Muslim community proclaiming, "Jesus is the slave of Allah—Islam will conquer Rome": not one or two banners from one or two lunatics but a very large number. The police were there, but they did nothing. I do not, in fact, advocate that they should do something, because I am, as I have said before, a big believer in free speech. However, let us suppose the reverse and that I was stood outside a mosque with a big sign saying, "Allah is the slave of Jesus—Rome will conquer Islam". I would be up before the bench before one could say "Jack Robinson", or "Danish cartoon".

Far from being uniquely privileged, on this theory, Christianity is uniquely vulnerable, and needs a specific law to protect it, while other religions are protected by the culture of political correctness. "I fear that if it is taken away, the inevitable result will be a huge outpouring of what we consider blasphemy, directed particularly against the Christian faith," she added. Quite what she expects to occur is unclear. One of the side-effects of the emphasis worldwide on Islam-specific incidents such as the Danish cartoons (and to a far lesser extent, Fitna) has been the virtual disappearance of anti-Christian blasphemy as a subject of passionate public concern. There have, it is true, been a few recent incidents: the chocolate Jesus that upset some over-sensitive Americans last year, Josef Hrdlicka's gay last supper which the Archbishop of Vienna accidentally exhibited in a church-owned art gallery, or Terence Koh's priapic and crudely-rendered Christ. But it's pretty weak stuff. Islam is where the action is, if your desire is to be truly provocative.

Hence, perhaps, the plaintiveness of Ann Widdecombe's protestation that Christians get hurt too:

What a lot of people fail to understand about blasphemy is that it hurts deeply and is deeply offensive. The reason the Muslim community got so worked up about those cartoons was that they did not mock Muslims—they mocked the Prophet. None of us would get worried about Christians being mocked, but when Christ is mocked, that is different. Most of us feel that with the way society is going, it is very unlikely that, out of good manners alone, if there were no final legal hurdle, Christians would be protected from that type of insult.

Widdecombe's contention is that the law, and the state, should protect people's religious feelings, but not any other sort of feelings that they might happen to have, because there's something special about religion. This isn't the desire to defend "Christian England" as seen, for example, in Gerald Howarth's argument:

This is a dreadful time for this House to indicate that it no longer feels that religion is important and that the Church of England has a central role to play in our life in this country. It is a time when we desperately need to reassert moral values in this country.

Rather, it a most un-Conservative principle that the state should intervene in people's private thoughts. Perhaps it's true that religious feelings are more deeply felt than other matters of opinion or belief. But that is a fact of human psychology and is nothing to do with the law. The Liberal Democrat David Howarth put it very well:

As a Liberal, it seems to me to be objectionable, as well as sad, that people should look to the state for their sense of identity. They should not look to the Government or the law for their own sense of worth. They should look to themselves, their families and their other social relations. It is a deeply sinister idea that the state should help to create people's identity. I realise that the Government frequently get close to that view in their debates about Britishness. That is a dangerous route to go down.

Indeed it is.

"The state's role is to prevent harm, but it must do so in a way that does not show favouritism to particular religious views."

It's most unlikely that either the hopes of the reformers - that this largely symbolic repeal will "send a message" to the Muslim world to abandon their own enthusiasm for hunting down blasphemers, for example - or the fears of Ann Widdecombe and Gerald Howarth will be realised. The only effect that I can foresee is to make it more difficult for vexatious litigants in the Stephen Green mould to waste court time. That is worthwhile in itself, of course. It also produced some interesting, lively and occasionally entertaining debates in both the Lords and the Commons. I'll leave you with this priceless exchange, between Conservative MPs Edward Garnier QC and Richard Bacon, that occurred towards the start of Tuesday's session:

Garnier: It might be thought strange for someone who has spent the past 35 years practising at the libel Bar to support the abolition of the common law offence of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, but that is what I intend to do.

Bacon: It is not strange in the slightest. Surely, as a libel lawyer, my hon. and learned Friend would be interested only in those laws that he could make money out of.


Anonymous said…
I hadn't noticed this - thanks again Heresiarch for your wonderful radar.

You say

'So blasphemy now joins witchcraft, homosexuality and the use of vestments in Anglican churches as things that the law of England is no longer officially bothered about'

I assume this repeal applies in Scotland also? In the 1730s the Church of Scotland complained bitterly that Westminster legislation on the Witchcraft Act (a consequence of that terrible Act of Union) meant that godly Scots could no longer burn witches - the last was Janet Horne who was burned alive in a tar barrel in 1727 (poor befuddled Janet had no idea what was happening and warmed her hands at the Calvinist fire that was to burn her when it was lit).

But perhaps our worst enemy now is actually a piskie (as we Scots call episcopalians) rather than a Knoxite: one of the many things I have against Rowan Williams is that he used his considerable rhetorical powers to seemingly argue against blasphemy while silkily and stealthily actually arguing for stronger laws against blasphemers like us.
Heresiarch said…
To be honest, I've no idea whether the law of blasphemy was or is still operative North of the border. Blasphemy was always a common law offence, developed in English courts by English judges, and all the discussion was about the English law. Of course, the human rights act applies equally to Scotland, so it's unlikely any prosecution could go ahead anyway. Perhaps someone out there knows the answer.

As for Rowan Williams, he might have argued silkily for some new version of the blasphemy law, but he didn't get it. Ha.
Anonymous said…
Is there anything I can legally say now that I couldn't say last week? Oh, yes, I forgot, I'm now allowed to be rude about Anglicans. But I'm losing the will to be offensive just thinking about them. Cake or death? No, can't do it. But what about that mad-looking Pope, eh? A German who thinks he's infallible? That never ends well...
Olive said…
A German who thinks he's infallible? That never ends well...

If you're referring to that nice Mr Hitler, he was of course, Austrian. And what is it about Austrians and bunkers?

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