In 2008, the blasphemy laws were abolished in England and Wales. They protected the tender sympathies of the Anglican God against any insults whether spoken in public or written. Relics of a more theocratic age, their eventual abolition may have seemed inevitable, but in practice many organisations and individuals had to campaign hard for it for many decades. Real change was anything but a foregone conclusion: at the same time as the case was being made for progressive reforms, there were those pushing not for the abolition of blasphemy laws, but for their extension.
These calls went back to 1989 when the then Archbishop of Canterbury had called for the blasphemy laws be extended to criminalise offences against Islam. This was in the context of the violent street reaction to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, stoked by the incendiary rhetoric of the Ayatollah Khomeini, which left many dead around the world. He didn’t get his way, but perhaps the Archbishop needn’t have bothered, as it seems that criticism or mockery of religion is now being censured by many public bodies of their own free will, and a social climate prevails which allows this to happen.
The last few years have seen many examples of religion being made immune from criticism or mockery in our public spaces, especially in universities, where student union authorities have played the role of heavy-handed thought police. In University College London, the humanist society was sanctioned by the authorities for using a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed at a bar to advertise their sociable events. That same week, a humanist society talk at Queen Mary’s was cancelled due to death threats. A week later, at LSE, students were censured over ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoons, and excluded from their own fresher’s fair a year later over T-shirts. At London South Bank, it was for using Christian imagery of the creation of Adam the advertise their drinks. And at Warwick, it was for using a cartoon of a stick man throwing religious symbols like crosses into a bin. Similar incidents, ranging from the troublingly absurd to the decidedly threatening, have taken place at Goldsmiths, Reading, and on many other campuses around England.
The latest victim of course is four-time Olympic medallist Louis Smith, forced to apologise and banned by British Gymnastics for enjoying a silly joke at the expense of religious practices which many people find ridiculous, and, in the course of doing so, offending those who would prefer to see religious ideas protected from scrutiny. Conceding to those demands sets us on a worrying course.
Absurd though we may think them, religions are big and powerful ideas. Many people think they are not just absurd but malign: barriers to human intellectual and moral progress. Whatever we think of them, in the history of Europe almost all social progress has come from criticising – yes, and ridiculing – their ideas and practices. All the benefits of free thought and free speech that we enjoy in Britain today come as a result of overturning their control.
In 2016, close to 70 countries have real blasphemy laws in statute. 43 of these treat it as an imprisonable offence, and in six others it is a crime punished with torture or the death sentence. The countries that actually enforce these rules are not places where you would want to live. The laws create a totalitarian atmosphere where people are so unfree that many live out the entirety of their lives never speaking their true thoughts, even to their closest friends and family. I have met many emigrants from Saudi Arabia in particular for whom this was true, but it is a pattern true of any country where the price of freedom is mortally high. Conform, be silent, never speak your mind. The alternative is to give up your liberty, your health, or even your life.
In our liberal democratic society, public authorities have a duty to protect and advance human rights, including our right to freedom of expression. They should not be victimising individuals for lawful actions, however offensive. Individuals, of course, have other obligations, and will keep their own conscience. We may exercise self-restraint in our own expressions out of politeness or respect. We may even urge others to do the same. But we should never call on the law to enforce our personal values or tastes, however deeply held these may be.
We have all had our most cherished beliefs, identities, or ways of life subject to ridicule at one time or another. When we feel that way, we have a choice. Our duty as citizens in a liberal society is to either engage with our detractors and attempt to persuade them to our way of thinking, or to shrug and ignore it. And then we get on with our lives, accepting that the discomfort we feel is a very small price to pay for freedom.