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Saturday 11 April 2015

Blasphemy, Censorship and LGBT Rights

Posted in: Comment
By Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 15th January 2015

For obvious reasons, much of mid-January's media coverage focused on the brutal Islamist terrorist attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. The crux was that the gunmen regarded some cartoons as "blasphemous". What is "blasphemy"- and how have blasphemy laws been used against LGBT rights elsewhere in the world?

Pro-censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse
Blasphemy refers to perceived images or words that cause "offence" to members of a dominant faith through "causing" derision through mockery and "denigration" of its dominant figures. This blanket definition is necessary because the dominant faith differs from country to country. According to Wikipedia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have all enacted "anti-blasphemy" legislation that forbids any such "denigration" of Islam, whether through criminal conviction, corporal punishment or even the death penalty in some extreme instances. In Indonesia, India and Israel, anti-blasphemy legislation is pluralist and multifaith- it is as much an offence to "denigrate" Christianity as it is Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. But yes, Christian-dominated societies also have their own anti-blasphemy laws, dating from a time when Christian religious observance was far more intense and authoritarian than it currently is.

Again, according to Wikipedia, Austria, Brazil, Canada and Ireland all have 'anti-blasphemy' laws that specifically penalise "anti-Christian" freedom of expression and speech. The United Kingdom repealed its anti-blasphemy criminal clauses through passing the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. What about New Zealand? It may surprise some readers to learn that New Zealand does indeed still have our own "anti-blasphemy" clause within the Crimes Act 1961, Section 123. Clause one imposes a one year penalty of imprisonment, while clause two refers to 'statements of fact,' while the other two clauses restrict its effect through mandating Solicitor General permission for prosecutions to proceed. In effect, this means that Section 123 is currently moribund, as such permission is never given in the interests of freedom of speech and expression.

There is a good case for repeal of Section 123. It is obviously an infringement on freedom of speech and expression, however theoretical, and has been used to attack human rights, civil liberties and free speech in both New Zealand and the United Kingdom in the past. In New Zealand's case, the only time that "blasphemous libel" was invoked was against a trade union periodical, the Maoriland Worker, in 1922. On 12 October 1921, editor John Glover published an antiwar poem by Siegfried Sassoon, which concluded with the following lines:

Oh Jesus send me a wound today
And I'll believe in Your bread and wine
And get my bloody old sins washed white!

Happily, common sense and free speech prevailed and Glover was acquitted. Subsequently, Section 123 has been defended by conservative Christian pro-censorship campaigners against freedom of artistic expression- namely the Virgin in a Condom artwork at Te Papa in 1998, subject of furious protests and several acts of vandalism from a fundamentalist Catholic organisation, Catholic Action, whose behaviour is so extreme it is not recognised by the New Zealand Conference of Catholic Bishops. Thankfully, the Solicitor-General refused to proceed with any prosecution. Since then, Catholic Action has vandalised or attacked other material that it considers "blasphemous." To be sure, "Catholic Action" is a tiny sectarian fringe group and the Maxim Institute has stated that it would support repeal of Section 123 if there was a future government or private members bill to that effect. Some conservative Christian legal commentators, such as Rex Ahdar of Otago University, disagreed with the decision not to prosecute the Virgin in a Condom artwork. However, since the early sixties, artistic or literary merit has been recognised in New Zealand censorship law and policy. New Zealand is a secular, multifaith society, so it is unclear why Christianity should have its sensibilities subject to such discriminatory protection, however.

For that matter, there is also the question of multiculturalism and religious pluralism, and whether Section 123 can or should be expanded to accommodate non-Christian religious sensibilities, as in India, Israel and Indonesia. From time to time, this has been discussed, but the consensus is that freedom of expression and speech, barring defamation and copyright or intellectual property violation, is a sacrosanct core civil liberty, enshrined in New Zealand's Bill of Rights Act 1990. For that reason, the Virgin in A Condom artwork was not subjected to prohibition through censorship, nor was Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. The latter was the subject of a fatwa (religious declaration) by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for the summary execution of Rushdie, which was never carried out. In that context, some liberal British Muslims recognised that freedom of speech and expression was essential to the conduct of human rights and civil liberties and opposed banning The Satanic Verses on that basis.

Why is this whole debate an LGBT issue? As the accompanying photograph of British Christian Right pro-censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001) suggests, it was a combination of her religious zealotry and a woefully retrograde decision in the courts related to a British gay publication. Gay News had published a piece by gay Christian Richard Kirkup, entitled "The Love That Dared to Speak Its Name", which contained some speculations about the physicality of a gay Roman soldier's erotic fantasies about Christ and the disciples. Whitehouse was predictably offended, and took a private case (Whitehouse versus Lemon) at the Old Bailey in July 1977. Unbelievably, the jury (10-2) found Gay News "guilty" of "blasphemous libel" and while it did not imprison him, it did impose a hefty fine, subsequently paid by anti-censorship campaigners and civil libertarians on the magazine's behalf. To add insult to injury, the Court of Appeal and House of Lords upheld the conviction. Fortunately, since then, there has been a repeat reading of the poem in public, on the steps of St Martins in the Field Anglican Church in Trafalgar Square, with no ill effects (2002). By then, Whitehouse had passed away. Like New Zealand's own pro-censorship Society for Promotion of Community Standards, her National Viewers and Listeners Association (now "Mediawatch UK") splutters forelornly onward, with shrinking, elderly membership.

This leads us back to consider the case of Charlie Hebdo in France and the tragic events of mid-January 2015. Charlie Hebdo is a Paris-based satirical magazine, which subscribes to a pungent French liberal tradition of anti-clericalism and opposition to special privileges for religious individuals and institutions beyond formal statutory religious freedom protections. During the nineteenth century, that venerable tradition was often invoked against conservative French Catholicism, especially that aligned with archaic French monarchism and fascist political movements. During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, that situation became more complicated, for two reasons. One was increased French-speaking North African and Arab immigration to France. The other was the rise of France's National Front, a crypto-neofascist political party that campaigns against immigration from North Africa and the Middle East, "Islamisation" (recognition of Muslim religious freedom)...marriage equality, abortion rights and other human rights and civil liberties. The National Front has ambiguous relationships to French far right paramilitary groups, which were responsible for violent demonstrations against marriage equality and inclusive adoption reform in France back in 2013.

Charlie Hebdo regularly publishes images of the Prophet Mohammed, which is a cultural taboo within Islam and had already led to a firebomb attack by Islamist extremists back in 2011. It was first published in 1970 but then ceased publication in 1981, before revival in 1992. In 2006, it published its first cartoons that mocked the pretensions of radical Islamism. However, it should be noted that Charlie Hebdo has been just as scabrous when it comes to criticising France's Catholic Right and defending marriage equality. One cover had God the Father, Jesus and a triangular (?) Holy Spirit engaged in a sexual daisy chain. Conservative Catholics have tried to launch lawsuits against Charlie Hebdo fourteen times. As noted above, it was firebombed by Islamists in 2011 and in January 2015, two al Qaeda affiliated youth, Said and Cherif Kouachi, opened fire in their offices, killing ten staff members and two police officers before being tracked down by French SWAT teams and killed themselves during a shootout in a Vincennes supermarket. It should be noted that one of the dead police officers was a Muslim himself, as was one of the brave supermarket workers whose prompt actions saved the lives of others in a fraught hostage situation, however. There have been massive solidarity marches in support of Charlie Hebdo and many western Muslim leaders have condemned the terrorist attack unconditionally.

Where does this leave us? Historically, LGBT communities thrive in societies where freedom of speech and expression and religious pluralism exist. In both Muslim majority and western societies, anti-blasphemy legislation has been used as a form of censorship to attack the human rights, civil liberties and rights to free speech and free expression of LGBT communities, and therefore, one needs to accept that enshrining one single faith as paramount within specific societies endangers this. However, the answer is not multifaith versions of blasphemy law, for these disadvantage those of secular provenance and philosophy, including ourselves. As has occurred in the United Kingdom, the best solution is to have no anti-blasphemy legislation at all. The Charlie Hebdo tragedy also indicates what happens when runaway neofascist advocacy is allowed to sour into populist anti-immigrant legislation, as in the French National Front and the Sarkozy administration, which has led to reciprocal Islamist radicalism and terrorism in response. We must not let mainstream western Muslims become the pariahs that we ourselves once were.

Rex Ahdar and John Stenhouse (ed) God and Government: The New Zealand Experience: Dunedin: University of Otago Press: 2000.
Rex Ahdar: Law and Religion: Aldershot: Ashgate: 2000.
Rex Ahdar: Conservative Christians and the Law: Aldershot: Ashgate: 2001.
Rex Ahdar and Ian Leigh: Religious Freedom in the Liberal State: Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2005.
Maryam Namazie: "Why the Charlie Hebdo Attack was An Assault on Free Speech" New Statesman: (19.12.2011): 25-26.
David Nash: Blasphemy in Modern Britain: 1789 to the Present: Aldershot: Ashgate: 1999.
David Nash: Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History: Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2007.
John Parkin and John Phillips: Laughter and Power: Oxford: Peter Lang: 2006.
S.Brent Plate: Blasphemy: Art That Offends: London: Black Dog: 2006.
Josh Marsh: Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture and Literature in Nineteenth Century England: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1998.
Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland (eds) The Rushdie Files: Syracuse University Press: 1990.
Ben Thompson and Mary Whitehouse: Ban This Filth! Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive: London: Faber and Faber: 2012.
Michael Tracey and David Morrison: Whitehouse: London: Macmillan: 1979.
"Maoriland Worker: Charge Against John Glover Blasphemous Libel" Hawera and Normanby Star: 22.02.1922: 53
Whitehouse v Lemon: Whitehouse v Gay News On Appeal from Regina versus Lemon [1979] 2 Westminster Law Review:

Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 15th January 2015

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