Blasphemy law is repealed in Ireland, enforced in Pakistan – and a problem in many Christian and Muslim countries

The citizens of Ireland voted recently, in a nationwide referendum, to remove a clause from their constitution that had made blasphemy a criminal offense.

Ireland’s now-defunct Defamation Act of 2009 prohibited the “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.” Just last year, in fact, Irish police opened a brief investigation into whether comedian Stephen Fry had broken the law when he described God as “capricious, mean-minded, stupid” and “an utter maniac” during a televised interview. The case was closed, however, as the police said they had been “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people.”

The overturning of Ireland’s blasphemy law stands in stark contrast to recent news out of Pakistan – where the release from prison of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, accused of blasphemy, has led to widespread protests. In Indonesia, too, many people have been jailed for speaking irreverently against Islam.

Despite its recent defeat, Ireland’s 2009 blasphemy law is an important reminder that laws against blasphemy have hardly been unique to the Muslim world – even in the 21st century.

Understanding the Muslim world

As of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly one-fifth of European countries and a third of countries in the Americas, notably Canada, have laws against blasphemy.

In my research for a literary study of blasphemy, I found that these laws may differ in many respects from their more well-known counterparts in Muslim nations, but they also share some common features with them.

In particular, they’re all united in regarding blasphemy as a form of “injury” – even as they disagree about what, exactly, blasphemy injures.

In the Muslim world, such injured parties are often a lot easier to find. Cultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood said that many devout Muslims perceive blasphemy as an almost physical injury: an intolerable offense that hurts both God himself and the whole community of the faithful.

A cleric in front of the Danish embassy in Tehran holds up a placard during a protest gathering by foreign clerics living in Iran over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, March 12, 2008. Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
For Mahmood that perception was brought powerfully home in 2005, when a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Interviewing a number of Muslims at the time, Mahmood was “struck,” she wrote, “by the sense of personal loss” they conveyed. People she interviewed were very clear on this point:

“The idea that we should just get over this hurt makes me so mad.”

“I would have felt less wounded if the object of ridicule were my own parents.”

The intensity of this “hurt,” “wounding” and “ridicule” helps to explain how blasphemy can remain a capital offense in a theocratic state like Pakistan. The punishment is tailored to the enormity of the perceived crime.

Blasphemy and Christians

That may sound like a foreign concept to secular ears. The reality, though, is that most Western blasphemy laws are rooted in a similar logic of religious offense.

As historians like Leonard Levy and David Nash have documented, these laws – dating, mostly, from the 1200s to the early 1800s – were designed to protect Christian beliefs and practices from the sort of “hurt” and “ridicule” that animates Islamic blasphemy laws today. But as the West became increasingly secular, religious injury gradually lost much of its power to provoke. By the mid-20th century, most Western blasphemy laws had become virtually dead letters.

That’s certainly true of the U.S., where such laws remain “on the books” in six states but haven’t been invoked since at least the early 1970s. They’re now widely held to be nullified by the First Amendment.