Senator Ivana Bacik claims in Trinity News that “the Minister for Justice has brought us back to the Dark Ages” with the revision of Ireland’s law on blasphemy. Unfortunately, censorship may be reappearing in response to a newer and far more malevolent force than catholic conservatism.
This week, it will have been 4 years since a terrifying manifestation of this – the controversy and violence resultant from the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.
The response of the Danish government was admirable or fool-hardy, depending on your perspective. Danish soldiers were targeted in Afghanistan, Danish goods were boycotted by Muslim countries, Danish embassies were burnt to the ground. All in all, more than a hundred people died as a consequence. Voltaire would be proud.
The government of Denmark defended free speech. Unfortunately, certain Islamic fundamentalist clerics did not agree, and thus demanded the deaths of those who would offend their prophet (and also anyone vaguely associated with them).
Let’s be clear. There is no perfect outcome here. If newspapers are censored or even engage in self-censorship out of fear, their freedom is being infringed upon. If they aren’t and won’t, it may cause bloodshed and cost lives.
The logic behind considering blasphemy as an externality charge was considered before here, and the validity of a democratic majority prohibiting offense against religious sentiment was argued before here. But where external actors threaten force to over-ride the moral sentiments of a society that values freedom of speech above all else, that is another story entirely.
When the government permits freedom of speech in Ireland, they are very limited in their ability to do so.
What happens in the event that somebody does create blasphemous matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion” where “he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage”?
This decision, if it happens to capture the imagination of a radical fundamentalist Islamic cleric, may impact on the lives and livelihoods of Irish people everywhere. The costs will not exclusively be imposed upon the artists. Thus, there is a public cost to this choice.
States can generally force citizens to respect each others’ rights. When you are dealing with zealots who believe that eternal life will be their martyr’s reward, deterrence typically breaks down. They have no means of controlling such fervent creatures, and that is why states must so radically adapt in the face of the terrorist threat.
Truly, it is legitimate for a nation to collectively adopt the way of Voltaire. It should be deemed equally legitimate for a state to deem the cost of permitting freedom of speech too high.
Is it blackmail? Sure. But if the Irish government has decided to take pre-emptive action to prevent such an occurrence from ever happening, that is their prerogative and they have a democratic mandate to make such decisions.
If you feel like your freedom of speech is being infringed upon by the new law against blasphemy, perhaps you shouldn’t blame the Irish government. They may be censoring you. But those strains of the Muslim faith which propagate violence in response to criticism are truly responsible.
Let us hope that freedom of speech returns some day, when the cartoons are no longer used to promote violence against the West. But for the time being, let’s not give them an excuse.
Republished in extended form as “Hello Father, Bye Bye Progress: A Response To Senator Ivana Bacik” in Trinity News (20th of October, 2009).
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