Sunday 24 March 2019

Blasphemy offence is vital to our peaceful co-existence

A masked Palestinian holds a burning Danish flag in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in 2006 in a protest over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
A masked Palestinian holds a burning Danish flag in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in 2006 in a protest over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Dr Ali Selim

THE Convention on the Constitution recommendation that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished is an unwelcome upheaval inconsistent with the Irish heritage of religiosity. This convention is sometimes based on similar situations in other countries, and sometimes it is because blasphemy legislation is abused in other countries. Every country is different and Ireland should remain unique.

Religion promotes peaceful co-existence in society, as most religions promote peace and harmony. Religions are pro-life since life has a sound doctrinal value.

Religion dictates how one is expected to live with others in harmony. It sets the basic norms and customs of society. Religion teaches us about God. Religion reinforces the collective conscience.

In a world where tragedy is the norm, religion gives us a reason and a purpose.

Nevertheless, the place of religion in society has become increasingly contentious in recent years.

Despite the divergence when it comes to the definition of religion and despite the existence of various religions, believers of all faiths consensually state that certain aspects of their religion are holy and hence should be respected by others.

This respect, deemed a fundamental component of co-existence and social mutuality and reciprocation, does not entail sharing others' beliefs but of simply not offending such believers in this regard.

According to Islam, God, angels, holy scriptures, prophets, disciples or companions and places of worship are to be protected by the state against any publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.

Islam advocates freedom of expression. Nonetheless, there is a big difference between the way Islam advocates freedom of expression and today's advocates of freedom of expression, since the former promotes the uniting of mankind and cultivating love and understanding among mankind and thus creating a healthy atmosphere for co-existence, whereas the latter advocates individualism.

In order to achieve this, Islam instructs Muslims to be truthful. Islam instructs Muslims to do good. Islam guarantees to all people, regardless of their faith and race, the right of disagreement. In fact, it encourages people to make up their own minds applying their mental faculties.

Islam is pro-freedom of expression but it pre-empts frictions by prescribing certain rules of conduct, which guarantees for all people freedom of expression as well as justice and the right to disagree. Unlike today's advocates of unrestrained freedom of expression, who cultivate confrontation and antagonism leading to provocation of every kind, Islam instructs Muslims to refrain from inappropriate speech.

Islam does not criminalise academic papers and scientific works provided that they are not generated by prejudice and do not apply offensive language. Mocking at religious values should not be tolerated.

Hence, we should be grateful to the Irish constitution that protects peaceful co-existence. Article 40.6.1° of the Constitution protects freedom of expression, and at the same time protects religion by providing for an offence of blasphemy in the following terms: "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law."

The above-mentioned philosophy of Islam gave rise to a phalanx who accuse Islam of being anti-freedom of expression or state that Islam censors freedom of expression. This is a fallacy. Islam preaches responsible freedom of expression.

The Danish cartoon, for instance, created a rift domestically and internationally. Members of the same country became enemies. What common good did the Danish cartoon achieve? In Ireland, the 1999 case of Corway vs Independent Newspapers concerned a cartoon that depicted three politicians walking away from a priest offering Holy Communion, and in a play on the wording of a particular "No" campaign in the 1995 divorce referendum slogan, it stated: "Hello Progress – Bye-Bye Father?"

The applicant sought leave to mount a prosecution for blasphemous libel on the basis that the cartoon was calculated to insult the feelings and religious convictions of Catholic readers by treating the sacrament of the Eucharist and its administration as objects of scorn and derision. What common good did this cartoon achieve?

Many may argue that it is the privilege of freedom of expression. We argue that the right of freedom of expression, just like all other rights, should be expressed responsibly. Your freedom ends where mine starts. Our society should be a society of principles and then privileges, and not privileges and then principles.

While many may argue that the blasphemy article is a microcosm of the current religious climate in Ireland, we, despite the fact that we accept that it is a matter of perspectives, perceive it as a fundamental component of the harmony spread all over Ireland.

Dr Ali Selim is a senior member of staff at the Islamic Cultural Centre

Irish Independent

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