“Embarrassing” – New Zealand’s blasphemy law to stay after all

An attempt to repeal the outdated “blasphemy” law in New Zealand has been derailed.

The existence of the laws was apparently only made known to some parliamentary and government officials earlier this month, following the publicity over an investigation into British celebrity Stephen Fry in the Republic of Ireland.

A plan to add the “blasphemy” law to a list of statutes to be repealed was quickly brought forward, but collapsed yesterday when the National Party and the Maori Party together voted it down.

Chris Hipkins, the MP who tabled a Supplementary Order Paper to add New Zealand’s blasphemy law to the Statutes Repeal Bill currently making its way through Parliament, posted on his Facebook profile saying that it was a “sad day for freedom of speech, tolerance, and leadership”, adding: “What moral authority does NZ have condemning other countries for draconian blasphemy laws when we have one of our own that we refuse to repeal?”

In a statement the Humanist Society of New Zealand (HSNZ) called the law and its retention “embarassing”. HSNZ president, Sara Passmore, said:

“This is a clear vote against human rights in New Zealand. It shows we have an illusion of a secular government, with politicians choosing personal beliefs over freedom and tolerance.

“By refusing to remove the blasphemy law from our Crimes Act, the Government is saying we are not free to criticise and challenge all ideas. This decision was backwards, and not in line with international trends. We think people, not ideas, should be protected”.

The Humanist Society of New Zealand, which represents the 41% of people in the country who are not religious, says that even blasphemy laws such as New Zealand’s that are not used can cause harm, because they legitimise human rights abuses in countries that use their blasphemy laws to persecute citizens.

Stephen Fry blasphemy probe in Ireland is dropped – may lead to abolition of New Zealand’s law!

That was quick!

Even as the world responded to news that Stephen Fry was being investigated for “blasphemy” in Ireland yesterday, the Gardaí (Irish police) decided to drop the probe because they couldn’t find a large enough group of people outraged by the comments.

Meanwhile, the coverage apparently alerted senior officials in New Zealand to the existence of their own “blasphemy” law, and the prime minister then pledged to abolish it!

A bit of Fry and sorry

Stephen Fry with comedy partner Hugh Laurie in sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie

Introduced by then-Justice Minister Dermot Ahern as late as 2009, against the tide of abolition in developed countries, the Irish ‘blasphemy’ law criminalizes publication and other expressions that are “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

The “blasphemy” probe was initiated in response to a single police complaint about a TV interview in 2015, in which Fry said that God was “stupid”.

A source told the Irish Independent yesterday that the complainant against Fry was “a witness and not an injured party”, and so with no substantial number of people offended the investigation would be dropped.

Of course, this leaves open the possibility of a future case in which the complainant does claim to be offended themselves, or where there is more evidence of public “outrage”. But for now, it looks like neither Stephen Fry nor the public service broadcaster RTÉ will be made to pay up (the maximum fine for “blasphemy” in Ireland is €25,000).

New Zealand gets sight of the discord

On the other side of the world, the prime minister of New Zealand Bill English, as well as the Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson, both apparently discovered for the first time that the country still had a “blasphemy” law, and English said he would work to repeal it.

New Zealand’s Religious Libel law, section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961, criminalizes “blasphemous libel” with a maximum sentence of one year. There is no record of a successful prosecution under this law, but it remains on the books and humanists in New Zealand have been actively seeking to repeal the law.

Prime Minister English is quoted by Stuff.co.nz as saying on Monday that he did not previously know the blasphemy laws existed, but “we could get rid of them. … Laws that overreach on addressing robust speech are not a good idea.”

Another politician, David Seymour of the ACT party said the unenforced law was “arbitrary” and: “That creates a situation where some people in authority can choose to enforce the law at their discretion.” He floated the introduction of a private members’ bill as a possible route to repealing the law.

Archbishop Richardson, too, said he saw no point to the law. “My view is, God’s bigger than needing to be defended by the Crimes Act.”

Citing the Fry case, the Humanist Society of New Zealand (a partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) today renewed its calls to repeal country’s “outdated blasphemy law.” Sara Passmore, president of the Humanist Society, said:

“New Zealand has to abolish its blasphemy law before it is used to censor, suppress, and silence public debate. We want to increase social cohesion and understanding, and by protecting one set of ideas from critique we are closing the door on free speech, free inquiry and public debate.

“This investigation into a TV interview with Stephen Fry is evidence that blasphemy laws restrict free speech and have no place in our society. Countries around the world are repealing blasphemy laws and it is time New Zealand followed the international trend. And now that the investigation has been dropped because the Irish police have failed to find ‘enough outraged people’ it is clear that any blasphemy law has no place in modern society.”

Outgoing governor of Jakarta sentenced to two years for “blasphemy”

The outgoing governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, usually known as ‘Ahok’, has been sentenced to two years in jail for criminal “blasphemy”.

Protesters against Ahok’s supposed ‘blasphemy’ called for his imprisonment or in some cases even his death

The governor of the capital city of Indonesia, world’s most populous Muslim country, had previously been highly popular. But he was due to stand down later in 2017 after having lost the governorship election last month, following a vicious campaign against him for alleged “blasphemy”.

Various Islamist groups had called for Ahok’s imprisonment , or even his execution, following a blasphemy accusation last year. Ahok, who is from a Chinese Christian background,  had mentioned during a campaign speech that political opponents were citing the Qur’an against him, a claim which, in an edited YouTube video which went viral, was made to look as though he was criticizing the Qur’an itself.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (a partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) comments:

“This sentence is the wail of a warning siren for a country in which intolerant Islamism is rising.

“We have seen the same pattern in states as far apart as Bangladesh and Mauritania, Pakistan and the Maldives in recent years. The pattern is that hardline Islamist groups, and violent extremists, are making more and more intolerant demands, against the rights and liberties of others. They are creating and using high profile “blasphemy” incidents to whip up religious hysteria and further an intolerant agenda. And instead of being slapped down by the authorities under constitutional principles, they are instead being flattered and facilitated and given what they want.

“We call on the courts to overturn the sentence on appeal, acquit Ahok and ensure his safety upon release. We call on the government to reconsider and abolish the country’s ‘blasphemy’ law. More than that, we call on all states suffering intolerant and militant Islamism not to make concessions, not to give in to intolerant Islamism, because every concession only creates more demands. Whereas upholding human rights and liberty is right, and will always be better for the nation in the long run.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide explains:

“As a Chinese Christian, Ahok is Indonesia’s most prominent ethnic minority politician and was the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta for over 50 years. His campaign for re-election was overshadowed by the blasphemy allegation against him and he lost the vote last month.

“On 27 September 2016, Ahok reportedly quoted a Qur’anic verse on the campaign trail while addressing concerns that his political opponents may use the verse to discourage people from voting for him as a non-Muslim. He was then falsely accused of criticising the verse itself. The court case against the governor was filed by several conservative Islamic groups after his statement went viral via a doctored YouTube video.

“On 13 November 2016, Ahok was formally charged with blasphemy and his trial began on 13 December 2016. An estimated 500,000 Muslims turned up to a number of rallies in November and December 2016 to protest against his supposed blasphemy.”

The Guardian newspaper said:

“On Tuesday, hundreds of members of hardline Islamist groups gathered outside the south Jakarta courtroom amid a heavy security presence, calling for Ahok to be given the maximum penalty.

“As news of the sentence emerged members of the crowd shouted “God is greatest”.

“The government has been criticised for not doing enough to protect religious minorities, but President Joko Widodo, an ally of Ahok’s, has urged restraint over the trial and called for all sides to respect the legal process.

“Thousands of police have been deployed in the capital to prevent clashes between Ahok supporters and opponents. “Both groups will have the opportunity to demonstrate, but we are taking steps to prevent clashes,” said the national police spokesman, Setyo Wasisto.”

Sentencing Ahok, the presiding head judge said: “As part of a religious society, the defendant should be careful to not use words with negative connotations regarding the symbols of religions, including the religion of the defendant himself.” Another judge explained that: “the defendant didn’t feel guilt, the defendant’s act has caused anxiety and hurt Muslims.” While Indonesia has a tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism under the state philosophy of Pancasila, it seems that this is now increasingly being interpreted less as ‘unity in diversity’ and more as ‘unity enforced by conformity’.

This is another example where political interests and the interests of conservative Islamist groups combine with a bad law and so render a grave injustice. We can hope that the appeals court might overturn the conviction. And more widely, we can hope that the Indonesian government will come to its senses, see the terrible future that the “blasphemy” mobs would bring about, and work to quickly review and abolish the “blasphemy” law.

Stephen Fry named in criminal blasphemy investigation in Ireland

A police investigation has been announced into an interview segment on RTÉ, the public service broadcaster of the Republic of Ireland, which featured the British comedian and actor Stephen Fry.

Ireland passed a new “blasphemy” law in 2009, making it the only developed country to have introduced “blasphemy” as a criminal offence in the twenty-first century.

During the 2015 interview on The Meaning of Life, hosted by Gay Byrne, Fry was asked what he would say to God. He replied: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. … It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? … Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. … The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

The 2017 investigation by the Gardaí (Irish police) was prompted by a complaint from a member of the public following the broadcast of The Meaning of Life in February 2015 according to the Irish Independent. Gardaí in Donnybrook only began a full investigation two years later, after having come back to the original complainant. The anonymous complainant told the Irish Independent that he wasn’t personally offended by the interview, but thought he was doing his “civic duty” by reporting an act of “criminal blasphemy”.

Atheist Ireland (a national partner organization in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) said:

Atheist Ireland

“Atheist Ireland welcomes the police investigation into Stephen Fry for blasphemy.

“It highlights a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous.

“It is a silly law because it suggests that the creator of the universe needs the Oireachtas to protect its feelings.

“It is a silencing law because many Irish media outlets are self-censoring themselves to avoid the possibility of being prosecuted.

“And it is a dangerous law because the Islamic States at the United Nations use western blasphemy laws to justify their own blasphemy laws, for which they execute people.

“Indeed Pakistan, on behalf of the Islamic States, has asked the UN to use wording from the Irish blasphemy law to ban blasphemy internationally.”

The organization noted that others who republished the interview and other similar “blasphemous” content could also conceivably be prosecuted. They therefore republished 25 blasphemous quotes in “solidarity” with Mr Fry, adding, “If we are prosecuted, we will challenge the constitutionality of the blasphemy law. If we are not prosecuted, it will again highlight the absurdity of this law, which should be repealed immediately. We again call on the Irish Government to honour its commitment to hold a referendum to remove the ban on blasphemy from our Constitution.”

President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (a transnational partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) wrote in the UK’s Independent online:

IHEU“Debate and discussion over powerful and emotive topics like religion and belief are, by their nature, endlessly provocative. They are also vital, and when so many countries still try to use the force of law to shut down these discussions, we all risk intellectual impoverishment. …

“Islamic states often justify their blasphemy laws by pointing to the existence of those in Europe, calling Europeans hypocrites for advocating for abolition whilst still having their own. Indeed, since 2013, EU foreign policy has been that blasphemy laws should be abolished, in spite of the fact that several member states have their own.

“The main international effort to repeal blasphemy laws has been through the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, spearheaded by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and European Humanist Federation, of which the British Humanist Association is a member. Over its two years the campaign has seen successful repeals in Norway, Iceland, Malta and France. The current Irish Government is committed to holding a referendum on doing the same. Now it is surely time to fulfil that promise.”

A spokesman for Mr Fry said there was “nothing for us to say while this is under investigation.”

The investigation could conceivably result in a prosecution. It would be the first such prosecution under the 2009 law.

 

Student murdered by other students for “blasphemy” in Pakistan

We’re horrified to hear of the murder today of Mashal Khan, a student in Pakistan who has been killed by other students after he was accused of “blasphemy”.

Detail from the personal Facebook profile of Mashal Khan

According to Dawn.com:

At least 15 people were arrested in connection with the incident, which occurred within the university premises. The campus was shut down until further notice. The hostels were vacated and a search for the remaining culprits was ongoing, police said.

Mardan’s Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police Alam Shinwari said the killed student was accused of running Facebook pages which allegedly published blasphemous content.

He was assaulted by a large group of students and appears to have succumbed to a gunshot wound, the DIG said.

A graphic video filmed by someone in the crowd is circulating on social media. It shows students kicking and stamping Khan’s lifeless body, and hitting with sticks a cricket bat.

Police are said to have been present during the attack, and had been on alert specifically because of the “blasphemy” accusation. However, a police spokesperson said there were too many attackers for them to intervene! In the video, an official can be seen intervening at one point, but is ineffectual.

According to iheu.org:

Khan called himself “The Humanist” on his Facebook page. Several ‘liberals’ and atheists have been arrested or “disappeared” since the start of the year in Pakistan, during a period of widespread public hysteria about “blasphemous” content, and a High Court judge orchestrating an crackdown against “blasphemy” on social media.

Mashal Khan in a recent Facebook profile photo

… On his social media, Khan appears to be post routinely against discrimination and in favour of human dignity. “Hide History and Hate Hindus. This is what we are taught in Schools… #Pathetic”, he wrote. “If you are black or you are brown or you are gay or you are lesbian or you are trans or you are introvert, anyone that is treating you unkindly, it’s only because they are afraid or they have been taught to be afraid of how important you are. Because being different means you make a difference. So f*** em…”

A spokesperson for Atheist and Agnostic Alliance Pakistan (AAAP) said:

“We are already extremely worried about recently arrested atheists, Ayaz Nizami and Rana Nouman, and the murder of Mashal Khan makes us more concerned than ever. In a country like Pakistan, when the police stand by as mobs of students who are supposed to be interested in ‘higher learning’ commit this atrocity, it is lawless. What if someone try to kill Ayaz Nizami and Rana Nouman in prison? Will the guards stand by?

“There will be no justice while ‘blasphemy’ is a crime and people feel they can get away with murder.”

Chief Executive of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Gary McLelland, said:

“This heinous act by university students against one of their own should appall everyone in Pakistan and around the world.

“And this kind of frenzy does not come from nowhere. This vile murder must be a wake-up call to the High Court judges, and to all those government agencies and members of the police and other security services who this year have participated in a campaign of persecution against individuals for so-called ‘blasphemy’. They have been whipping up anti-blasphemy hysteria, when they should be interesting in upholding individual human rights. They have been “disappearing” and harassing and arresting innocent people, when they should have been taking action against those who agitate and send death threats against ‘blasphemers’.

“Pakistan has a social order problem and a blasphemy law problem. These problems will not solved by whipping up a frenzy or by imposing more controls on free expression on religion or non-religion. A tolerant society is not achieved by public officials venting their own intolerance, and facilitating wider public intolerance. It is achieved by upholding freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief for everyone.

“It is past time to abolish anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan and everywhere.”

Even under the law, the crime of “blasphemy” carries a death sentence in Pakistan.

The university has been closed until further notice.

Greece quashes charges in pasta-based “blasphemy” case

The man at the centre of the pasta-based Facebook “blasphemy” trial in Greece, has had his suspended 10-month prison sentence quashed in the appeals court.

However, the conviction was quashed only due to an administrative process aimed at clearing out “misdemeanor” crimes that had taken too long to process. The court reportedly activated article 8 of law 4411/2016 which cancels misdemeanors committed up until March 31, 2016.

An image from the Elder Pastisios Facebook page, for which one Greek man has suffered years in the courts under “blasphemy” laws

Philippos Louizos was convicted in January 2014 and handed a suspended sentence of ten months for making Facebook posts in which he depicted a revered Orthodox monk, Elder Paisios, with pasta for a face, thus making a pun on his name, and borrowing imagery from the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He had given the pasta-faced satirical figure the name “Elder Pastitsios”. Pastitsio is a local dish made from pasta and béchamel sauce.

Louizos’ initial arrest in 2012 was reportedly linked to pressure by the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.

The Humanist Union of Greece (HUG) comments: “The quashing of blasphemy charges against Philippos Louizos because of the conditional prescription of all small crimes to alleviate the work of overburdened Greek courts ended his judicial harassment on 2 March 2017. Philippos and the Humanist Union of Greece that offered him free legal aid are not satisfied though as he was not given a chance to be acquitted on the merits during the appeals trial.”

There was a concerted effort by humanists in Greece and internationally to abolish the Greek ‘blasphemy’ laws, writing to government officials in June last year and again early last month.

HUG comments: “They also regret that the international campaign by humanist organizations in 2016 and the UN CERD recommendations in August 2016 that Greece abolishes the effectively discriminatory Articles 198 and 199 of the Criminal Code criminalizing blasphemy did not lead to the abolition of the charges before the trial, despite repeated Greek government pledges before three UN bodies and through public statements that they would have done so.

“Once more, the supposedly progressive SYRIZA-led government gave in to the aggressive public opposition of Greek Orthodox bishops. On the contrary, Hellenic Police reports frequent arrests and fresh charges for blasphemy, the most recent in December 2016 and January 2017. The campaign to end blasphemy laws in Greece will now take new forms including before the domestic courts.”

The Greek “blasphemy” law remains on statute.

Denmark reactivates ‘blasphemy’ law to charge man who burned Quran

A man whose named has not been made public has been charged with ‘blasphemy’ in Denmark. The 42-year-old allegedly made a film of himself burning a copy of the Quran and shared the film online.

He gave the video the title: “Consider your neighbour: it stinks when it burns” and posted the video to a Facebook group (“YES TO FREEDOM – NO TO ISLAM”) which contains numerous hateful and racist posts.

Jan Reckendorff, from the public prosecutor’s office in Viborg, said: “It is the prosecution’s view that circumstances involving the burning of holy books such as the Bible and the Quran can in some cases be a violation of the blasphemy clause, which covers public scorn or mockery of religion.

“It is our opinion that the circumstances of this case mean it should be prosecuted so the courts now have an opportunity to take a position on the matter.”

The accused could face a fine or even a prison sentence for the ‘blasphemy’ charge.

Responses by humanist groups at home and internationally

The Danish Humanist Society, Humanistisk Samfund, said the use of the ‘blasphemy’ law was “scandalous” and that “Legislation should protect  the individual freedom of speech and individuals against hate-speech and hate-crimes. Hateful and critical utterances directed at ideas, religions and ideologies should be fought with words and debate.” Lone Ree Milkær, chairperson of the Danish Humanist Society, said: “Denmark should abolish the blasphemy law. We have freedom of religion and belief and it makes no sense to have a special protection of religions or worship. Imagine that we protected ideologies in the same way. In a secular democracy we should be able to tolerate utterances (and actions with no victims) that we dislike or disagree with and we should argue against them instead of punishing by law.”

IHEUAndrew Copson, President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a transnational partner in the campaign, said: “We condemn the use of ‘blasphemy’ laws in all circumstances. Around the world, accusations of ‘blasphemy’ can spark mass protests, the harassment of individuals, or even murder. ‘Blasphemy’ is a bizarre, fictitious notion as a crime and has no place in courts of law anywhere in the world. … The answer to anti-Muslim bigotry, when that is what is going on, is education and understanding and dialogue. The answer is emphatically not to resurrect the state policing of religious acts and language.”

For the Center for Inquiry, a US-based national partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, Michael De Dora said: “The fundamental rights that allow a religious believer to freely profess the divinity of a holy book also allow someone else to defile that book, and still others to censure such an action… While the actions of the accused may be offensive and his sentiments ugly, real democracy is only possible with the freedom to criticize even the most deeply held beliefs.”

Context

This is only the fourth prosecution in Denmark for ‘blasphemy’, and the first since 1971, when two producers for the station Denmark Radio were charged after airing a song mocking Christianity. They were acquitted.

Other cases have been considered by prosecutors but without charges being brought forward.

In 2006, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten was investigated over publication of a set of caricatures under the headline “The Face of Mohamed”, but no one was charged.

In 2014, Danish-Iranian artist Firoozeh Bazrafkan held an art exhibition called “Blasphemy” and which featured the shredded remains of the Quran. She said at the time “I want to continue to remind people that it’s okay to disagree.” She was not charged with ‘blasphemy’ over this or any other of her art projects, often rebuking and condemning aspects of religion, however she has previously been convicted under Danish anti-racism legislation.

 

Blasphemy law abolished in Alsace-Moselle region of France

neuf-church-metz-alsace-moselle

A Protestant church in Metz, built between 1901 and 1905, during the Wilhelmine period in Alsace-Lorraine under German supervision.

The ‘blasphemy’ law in force in the region of Alsace-Moselle, France, has been repealed by the national Senate!

The repeal has been termed an “evolution” by lobbyists, and means that France is now free of ‘blasphemy’ laws as such!

How did France, a country renowned for its secularism, end up with a ‘blasphemy’ law on the books as late as 2016? The area where this law was in force was the Alsace-Moselle territory, covering the entire region of Alsace and the département of Moselle in the northeast of the region of Lorraine, and bordering Germany. The territory had been part of the German Empire from 1871 to 1918, and was occupied by Germany during World War II. The Alsace-Moselle ‘blasphemy’ law, articles 166 and 167 of the local penal code, had been inherited from the German Criminal Code of 1871, and kept in place ever since.

The territory has long-maintained its own local legislation reflecting the unique history of the area, despite being part of the French republic. While the ‘blasphemy’ law is now repealed, various religious privileges and exemption from the 1905 law “on the Separation of the Churches and the State” remain.

France, previously awarded a yellow “Local restrictions” rating on the End Blasphemy Laws Campaign map, now gets the “all clear” for ‘blasphemy’.

Greece must uphold pledge to abolish “blasphemy”

More than 50 secular and human rights groups, including numerous members of our International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws, have joined the Humanist Union of Greece in demanding that Greece uphold the pledges of consecutive governments and finally end “blasphemy” law in Greece. Continue reading »