The fight against blasphemy laws lumbers on

It’s almost been the de-facto rallying cry of the National Secular Society for 140 years, but recently the government and the Lords have voted to abolish the UK common law offense of blasphemous libel. Needless to say that I joined the rest of the National Secular Society in celebrating, but the celebration may be a little muted. Even as the debate was raging, following the attempt of Christian Voice to bring a private prosecution against the BBC, doubts were being expressed over the sincerity of the Church of England in welcoming its abolition.

At the same time the abolition of blasphemous libel was being aired, the church – as part of the government’s, “short sharp consultation” – urged for more laws to protect religious “sensibilities”. Even though he was – rightly – largely ignored at the time, he may still get his wish:

GENEVA — The top U.N. rights body on Thursday passed a resolution proposed by Islamic countries saying it is deeply concerned about the defamation of religions and urging governments to prohibit it.

The first thing that sprung to my mind when reading this were the phrases, “defamation of religions” and “prohibit it”. Which looks, if anything, to be more draconian that the recently abolished blasphemy law. But – at least according to this report – that is not how the EU saw it:

The European Union said the text was one-sided because it primarily focused on Islam

Surely it would be better to say that, “the text is one-sided because it focuses on religion”. If this is an accurate description of the EU’s position on the text, it is truly frightening. Is this to suggest that, if the explicit mention of Islam were removed from the text, the EU would uphold the requirement that countries must adopt censorious laws prohibiting, “defamation” of religion? What is meant by “defamation” in this sense? Well:

“expresses deep concern at attempts to identify Islam with terrorism, violence and human rights violations.”

I don’t even want to examine the question as to whether or not it is right to identify strands of Islam with terrorism or violence. But you have to admit that there’s a huge irony in an group on the UN Human Rights Council drafting a proposal to limit freedom of expression regarding religious matters; and it’s even more ironic when the group is called the “Organisation of Islamic Conference” and is complaining, specifically, that Islam is being related to human rights violations.

Just for the record, the UNHRC is supposed to be upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states (Article 19):

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers

This organisation has now passed a resolution which effectively says, “except if it’s about religion”.

Blasphemous libel as a common law offense has been abolished in the UK. This is fantastic news, and long, long overdue. But the stupid is still out there, and in high political office. The fight for secularism is still on.

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