Blasphemy from Ireland to Indonesia via South Park

Cover of CoE Blasphemy bookThe Council of Europe has just published the Venice Commission‘s Report on Blasphemy, insult and hatred – Finding answers in a democratic society (Science and Technique of Democracy No 47, 2010) (cover left) (earlier related publications here). Religious accommodation, mutual understanding, and social diversity constitute a significant challenge for modern western democracies. This report argues that “diversity is undoubtedly an asset, but cohabiting with people of different backgrounds and ideas calls for a new ethic of responsible intercultural relations”. The recent Irish response has been to introduce an offence of blasphemy in the Defamation Act, 2009. At its conference last weekend, the Labour Party debated and passed three motions (111, 112, 113) which condemned the introduction of the offence of blasphemy, and called for its repeal, and called for a referendum proposing to delete the word “blasphemous” from the Constitution (presumably as part of its wholesale constitutional revision). This is welcome, but doesn’t go far enough: the entire free speech clause should be thoroughly reformed (especially if there is to be a convention to develop a new constitution). Of course, this might not be necessary in the short term, since the provisions might very well conflict with the current text of the constitution in any event.

This is not the case in Indonesia. On Monday, that country’s Constitutional Court held that a controversial 45-year-old law banning religious blasphemy was constitutional. Mahfud CJ held that the law did not contradict the country’s 1945 Constitution or its national ideology, known as Pancasila, which nominally guarantee freedom of religion.

Later in the week, Islamists – to predictable controversy – warned the creators of provocative TV show South Park that they could face violent retribution for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit (BBC | Guardian here and here | Independent | Irish Independent | Irish Times | LA Times | The Daily Show with John Stewart). On Human Rights in Ireland, Liam Thornton considered whether such gratuitous mocking of religion is permitted under human rights law. Starting from David Keane “Cartoon Violence and Freedom of Expression” (2008) 30 (4) Human Rights Quarterly 845, and observing that South Park purposefully courts controversy and seeks to mock all religions and atheism in a gratuitous fashion, he concludes that the purpose of the controversial episodes

… was to show the mental acrobatics which have to be gone through to justify the limitation of freedom of expression from mocking of one groups beliefs, yet allowed to freely ridicule the religious beliefs of others. In the words of the South Park creators, they are “equal opportunity offenders”. To those who are offended by shows like South Park, which does not provoke hatred on the ground of religious belief, the solution is simple, change the channel.

I couldn’t agree more.