Yes, blasphemy law is obstacle to free speech but so is 'political correctness'
The Islamic Educational and Cultural Centre Ireland has issued a set of guidelines giving advice on how to respond when images of the prophet Mohammed are printed. Essentially it advises passive resistance.
This is not the first and last word on the subject. The Irish Council of Imams, for instance, has said it would use our anti-blasphemy laws if 'offensive' depictions of Mohammed were published.
There are many interpretations of what Islam requires of Muslims. Islam is a very law-based religion and just as secular lawyers and judges can come up with different interpretations of civil law, Imams can offer different interpretations of Islamic law.
This is why Isil can offer an ultra-strict version of Islamic law whereas there are also relatively moderate interpretations of Islamic law on offer.
To put it another way, while there are Muslims who believe the only possible response to blasphemy is death, there are other Muslims who think the best response is resort to anti-blasphemy laws such as we have here, while still others believe the best response is passive resistance of the sort the Islamic Educational and Cultural Centre seems to be suggesting.
Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre found himself in the eye of a storm last week after he told a reporter at a local radio station that newspapers in Ireland shouldn't reprint any of 'Charlie Hebdo's depictions of Mohammed and if they did, there would be recourse to our anti-blasphemy laws.
To judge by some of the reaction to Selim, you would think he was an apologist for the Paris murderers, but as an Irish citizen he has as much right as any of the rest of us to have recourse to any relevant law he chooses.
Selim's comments immediately led to calls that we should repeal our law against blasphemy, something that will need yet another constitutional referendum and in the end will amount to little more than a token gesture, seeing as it is almost impossible to prosecute someone under our present anti-blasphemy laws.
The reference to blasphemy is contained in Article 40 of the Constitution which deals with fundamental rights, including free speech.
This article also sets down certain limits on free speech in the name of the "common good" and therefore it prohibits "the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter".
This begs a whole lot of questions. What is "blasphemous"? What is "seditious"? What is "indecent"? Will a referendum on deleting the reference to blasphemy also ask us to delete the references to "seditious or indecent matter"?
In fact, come to think of it, were some of the cartoons of Mohammed printed by 'Charlie Hebdo' not only blasphemous but also indecent, because several of them were basically pornographic and no family newspaper would ever reprint them for that reason alone.
Incidentally, 'Charlie Hebdo' has also printed extremely pornographic depictions of Jesus and the Holy Trinity. Would these be considered "indecent" under our Constitution as well as blasphemous?
In other words, if we are going to delete the prohibition on blasphemous matter from our Constitution, logically shouldn't we do the same to the reference to "indecent matter"?
As it happens, I support deleting the reference to blasphemous materials from the Constitution.
The Constitutional Convention considered the issue in late 2013. It voted for the removal of the blasphemy provision. Interestingly, it didn't even consider the referendum to "indecent matter" and it's also interesting how little attention overall has been given to this.
But the Convention recommended replacing the blasphemy provision with one against inciting "religious hatred". That should make us nervous. What is "religious hatred"?
Would strong criticism of Islam that falls well short of blasphemy, incur a charge of "religious hatred"?
Would we end up removing one obstacle to free speech only to replace it straight away with a new, politically correct one?
Clearly the right to free speech is not an absolute. No one has a right to spread lies about you, for example. But speech must be allowed extremely wide parameters.
Today, the main threat to free speech comes from those who shout 'racist', 'sexist' 'homophobe' and 'fundamentalist' at all those who disagree with them on issues like immigration, feminism, gay rights, or religion, and for the weight of law to be brought to bear against anyone so labelled through so-called 'anti-hate' legislation.
Compared with this threat to free speech, the current blasphemy provision is nothing at all.