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Blasphemy is an impious utterance or action concerning God, gods, goddesses, or sacred things. (The very definition of "sacred" implies that jokes against it are entirely off-limits, hence the massive taboo and the special term known as "blasphemy.") One remorseful Pakistani boy made amends for unintentional blasphemy by cutting his own hand off. Frequently, the definition is extended to include anything which would be regarded as "bad language."
Blasphemy is considered by some, namely its practitioners, to be nothing more than a thought-crime committed against a non-existent entity. In places with strong religion-based law however, blasphemy laws can be, and are, used against those who don't even subscribe to the beliefs being blasphemed against.
Blasphemy in modern law
In the times of the Old Testament, blasphemy was punishable by death, and it used to be a criminal offense in many Western states. Although many of these laws may still exist on the statute books as technicalities, they are not now enforced, or at least not with any real punishment, in most western countries. In the UK the obsolete blasphemy law was repealed in 2008. Some feel that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was put in place to replace it but, importantly, the new act focusses on offences against people, not offences against God. This may be attributed to the actions of Stephen Green, who attempted to use the blasphemy laws against Jerry Springer: The Opera and brought attention to the fact that the UK had such an arcane law still on its books.
However, blasphemy prosecutions do still occur throughout the world:
- The Austrian artist Gerhard Haderer created and published a satirical book about a cannabis-smoking, surfing Jesus. The book was published in Austria. He was subsequently tried in absentia for blasphemy in Greece and received a six month sentence. The sentence was revoked on appeal.
- The death penalty for blasphemy still exists in a number of Muslim countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. That's if you can even make it to a courtroom; a man in Pakistan was burned to death by a lynch mob for allegedly burning the Qur'an. In a classic episode of one act of vicious stupidity possibly following another, a girl from the country's Christian minority was similarly threatened by a mob for burning pages of the Qur'an in order to start a cooking fire; the girl may also have Down syndrome. It turns out, however, that she was framed by a local imam for the crime; this eventually resulted in the imam's arrest and the blasphemy charges being dropped.
- Even in the "new" Afghanistan, blasphemy remains a capital offense. In January 2008, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh was sentenced to death for blasphemy after a five minute trial. This followed reports he had downloaded from the internet un-Islamic material on women's rights.
- In potential-EU member Turkey, Islamic creationist Harun Yahya succeed in getting Richard Dawkins' website banned on account of its alleged blasphemous content.
- Ireland, not wanting to be seen as being backward, criminalised blasphemy in 2009. A referendum is expected over whether to keep the law.
- In Russia, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were arrested and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility" when their performance of a profanity-laced anti-Putin song inside Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow angered both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin government. The band was subsequently sentenced to two years in a prison colony for this "crime". Eventually, band member Yekaterina Samutsevich was released on appeal after serving six months; the other two members remain behind bars.
- In Mumbai, India, skeptic Sanal Edamaruku faced blasphemy charges after he debunked a "weeping crucifix" phenomenon at the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni. He is temporarily living in Finland while his lawyers file appeals concerning various aspects of the case.
- In Greece, Greek blogger Filippos Loizos received a 10-month jail sentence suspended for three years for running a satirical Facebook page called "Elder Pastitsios". The page name was a pun using a known Greek pasta dish "pastitsio" — a reference to Pastafarianism — and a now deceased Greek-Orthodox Athos monk's name "Elder Paisios", considered by some as a "miracle worker" and a "prophet". The authorities arrested Loizos at his house in 2012 on charges of “malicious blasphemy and insulting religion” through Facebook, after Christos Pappas, an MP for the Greek neo-nazi party Golden Dawn tabled a question in Parliament complaining about the Facebook page where the administrator insults, mocks and tries to humiliate the "sacred figure of Greek Orthodoxy", Elder Paisios.
The majority of countries in Latin America and Central America never had any form blasphemy law. The same is true for a few Western European countries such as Portugal, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as the United States and the majority of Eastern and Central Europe. The Netherlands, Great Britain and Iceland had blasphemy laws in the books, but the laws were successfully repealed. Blasphemers may still get into trouble due to other laws over desecrating venerated objects (USA) or inciting religious hatred (UK).
Defamation of religion
Origins and legitimate use
The term is also used (properly, and not euphemistically) for speech which defames (in the ordinary sense of the word) an entire religion or its followers.
The best known example of which might be the infamous blood libels of medieval Europe. Indeed, "defamation" in regards to religion was originally used to counter antisemitism (see Anti-Defamation League). The talking point of the American right that "all Islam is radical Islam" could also fairly reasonably be lumped in this category, as could the claim that "all Muslims are terrorists."
It differs from the concept of blasphemy in that blasphemy refers to any theological narrative that runs counter to one's theological narrative. Blasphemy can refer to defamation but is not necessarily defamation. The defamation of a religion is to misrepresent the beliefs or rituals of a religion in order to discredit the religion (i.e., blood libel). Is there potential for the abuse of the term in order to silence other points of view? Absolutely. However, the defamation of a religion is often a tool of persecution of religious groups, particularly when religion is associated (implicitly or explicitly) with race.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference, acting through its specific members, regularly brings resolutions before the UN Human Rights Council condemning "defamation of religion". The term itself sounds fairly innocuous, and in fact at first blush, even appropriate; if we let those anti-religion types run around and bash religion, the reasoning goes, it will lead to all kinds of things like icky Nazis killing off Jews. So the UN tends (or tended) to support the resolutions. Recently, however, this support has been waning, perhaps because the Human Rights Council has finally taken the bother to notice that a person can still be executed for "defamation of religion" in the member nations of the OIC, including Pakistan. In short: in modern theocracies, "defamation of religion" is essentially the same as blasphemy.
Some blasphemy in the Bible
- The Third of the Ten Commandments
- Leviticus 24:11-16: "And the Israelitish woman's son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed. … And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death."
- 1 Kings 21:10: "And set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die."
- 1 Kings 21:13: "… Naboth did blaspheme God and the king. Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died."
- Matthew 12:31-32: "… And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come."
- The Book of Revelation: a whole lot of blaspheming
- 15-Year-Old Pakistani Boy Chops Off Own Hand to Prove He Really Loves God
- Pakistani boy cuts off own hand after blasphemy mistake: police
- Teen Cuts Off Own Hand, Mistakenly Thought He Committed Blasphemy (Video)
- General Comment No. 34
- Review of European blasphemy laws
- UK repeal Blasphemy law
- Is The Blasphemy Law Going To Be Extended? National Secular Society.
- Greece sentence artist to six months for blasphemy
- Iranian Christian pastor released from jail Guardian, Saturday 8 September 2012 10.59 EDT
- Pakistan death sentence for blasphemy against the prophet
- Saudi Arabian death sentence for blasphemy
- Pakistan mob burns man to death for 'blasphemy', BBC News
- Girl held in Pakistan, accused of burning Quran, cnn.com
- Imam Arrested for Framing Girl for Blasphemy, Dispatches from the Culture Wars
- Pakistan Drops Blasphemy Case Against Rimsha, Dispatches from the Culture Wars
- Afghanistan blasphemy death sentence
- Indonesia — four years in jail for blasphemy
- Turkey silences Dawkins
- Irish Times: Blasphemy law a return to middle ages — Dawkins
- Ireland set to call referendum on blasphemy laws
- Pussy Riot sentenced to two years in prison colony over anti-Putin protest, The Guardian
- Pussy Riot member freed after Moscow court appeal, The Guardian online
- Indian skeptic charged with "blasphemy" for revealing secret behind "miracle" of weeping cross, Boing Boing
- Sanal Edamaruku: an update, New Humanist Blog
- Blasphemy laws alive and well in Greece: satirical Facebook page leads to 10 month sentence for 27-year-oldThe Press Project
- See the Wikipedia article on Blasphemy law.
- Virginia tries to out-Alabama Alabama
- TN Man Charged With Vandalism After Posting His Beliefs on Church Doors