Oppose all blasphemy laws

Communists fight for the complete separation of church and state, says Eddie Ford

For many muslims, the cartoons depicting Mohammed ibn Abdallah ('the prophet') are regarded as 'blasphemous' - a provocation against the islamic religion that ought to be banned.

For all its talk about "racism", that effectively is the demand of Socialist Workers Party too. For the SWP there is a simple choice to be made: either 'fight racism' or defend freedom of speech, one or the other. We do not find ourselves faced with the same dilemma. On the one hand, as a matter of basic principle, communists - as consistent democrats - are defenders of free speech and indeed freedom in general. At the same time we are implacable opponents of all racism and chauvinism - which must include, naturally, islamophobia and anti-muslim bigotry. On that score, we have no doubt that Jyllands-Posten has a reactionary, anti-muslim agenda.

Communists are adamantly opposed to all and any blasphemy laws. We fight, as secularists and democrats, for the complete separation of church and state - everywhere, whether in the Middle East, Europe or the USA. This means the democratic right to practise whatever religion you like and the democratic right to criticise religion (which does not mean, of course, that we aim to gratuitously insult or offend someone's religious beliefs - nor necessarily approve of those that seek to do so). Communists are against privileges for one religious faith, denomination or cult over another. There should be a strict equality of belief and non-belief. We most certainly do not, contrary to some popular prejudices, hanker for an Enver Hoxha-style atheocracy or desire to ridicule and mock religious believers with cheap jibes.

Many European countries have blasphemy laws on the statute books. For instance - Austria (articles 188 and 189 of the criminal code), Finland (section 10 of chapter 17 of the penal code), Germany (article 166 of the criminal code), Italy, Ireland (its founding constitution), the Netherlands (article 147 of the criminal code), Spain (article 525 of the criminal code), etc - and, of course, we have the United Kingdom, where under its still existent 17th century laws, it is forbidden to promote "reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to god, Jesus Christ, or the bible, or the formularies of the Church of England, as by law established".

The last person to be actually imprisoned for blasphemy in the UK was John William Gott - a trouser salesman from Bradford who led the Freethought Socialist League. In 1911, Gott was sentenced to four months in jail for publishing attacks on christianity. Further punishment followed in 1916, 1917 and 1918. He was tried again for blasphemy at the Old Bailey in London in 1921, found guilty and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for comparing Jesus to a circus clown. At the trial, the presiding judge dismissed an appeal attempt with the devout observation: "It does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem 'like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys'."

As for the last time someone was prosecuted for blasphemy, that was in 1976, when the notorious National Viewers and Listeners Association - headed by the every vigilant Mary Whitehouse - funded a private prosecution against the editor of Gay News, Denis Lemon. He had dared to publish a poem called 'The love that dares to speak its name' by professor James Kirkup, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, that portrayed Jesus as a sexually active gay man, and for the likes of Whitehouse and the NVLA, it was a violation of all that is holy and therefore had to be punished - in this case, by wheeling out the blasphemy laws. Lemon was given a suspended jail sentence and told by the judge that he had come "very close" to actually serving the sentence.

For some time voices - now growing a bit louder thanks to the Danish cartoons - have been raised complaining about the 'unfairness' of the UK's current blasphemy laws. They ask: how come it is an offence to blaspheme against christianity, but it is perfectly OK to libel and slander islam - like Salman Rushdie supposedly did in The Satanic verses, and now Jyllands-Posten? Predictably, it is argued that the christian-only blasphemy laws are inappropriate for a multicultural society, where all religions should have equal status and the right to be respected. The blasphemy laws should therefore be amended to include islam - not to mention Sikhism, Judaism, hinduism, etc (and paganism and scientology as well?). Nobody should have the right to offend - only the right not to be offended.

Pressure to extend the blasphemy laws of the UK and other European states has also been stepped up in muslim-majority countries. In Bangladesh, for instance, the minister for industry, Matiur Rahman Nizami, informed the local press that if in the European Union christianity and Jesus Christ were protected, then there was no justification for those laws not being used to also protect the rights of muslims. Similarly, in Lebanon, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizbullah movement, has called on the EU to pass laws "prohibiting the media from attacking god and the prophets".

Some muslim countries have blasphemy laws that are far more draconian - most notably, Pakistan. In 1982, president Zia ul-Haq introduced section 295B to the Pakistani code of criminal procedure punishing "defiling the holy Koran" with life imprisonment. In 1986, section 295C was introduced, allowing the death penalty for "use of derogatory remarks in respect of the holy prophet". And in 1990, the federal sharia court ruled that there should be no right to reprieve or pardon. This is still binding, but the government is yet to amend the law, which means that the provision for life sentence still formally exists, and is used by the government as a concession to critics of the death penalty.

In 2004, the Pakistani parliament approved a law to reduce the scope of the laws. The amendment to the law means that police officials will have to investigate accusations of blasphemy to ensure that they are well founded, before presenting criminal charges. However, action is not infrequently taken against christians, hindus and Sikhs - not to mention the Ahmadi-muslims who, while claiming to be muslims themselves, are not allowed to use islamic vocabulary or rituals under the current blasphemy laws.

In Jordan anti-blasphemy sentiment has led to the sacking of Jihad Momani, editor of the weekly Al-Shihan, who published the Danish cartoons in order to inform his readership what it was that had led to such outrage The government is "considering legal action" over this "direct insult" to islam and Momani is threatened with a 10-year prison sentence.

Such a move would clearly be a blow against democracy - not just in Jordan, but for the Middle East as a whole. Al-Shihan is a non-governmental publication and is not controlled by the imams either. Naturally, working class and socialist publications bear the brunt of anti-free speech laws - just as they will suffer from the introduction of new 'anti-blasphemy' legislation, which many of those protesting against the Danish cartoons have called for.

Communists resolutely oppose moves to introduce more bans. We fight to abolish the UK's blasphemy laws - and those of every other state - not to reform, amend or 'rationalise' them, let alone actually extend them to include non-christian belief-systems. God forbid!

But what is the position of our SWP comrades on this question? Well, given its recent turn to popular frontism with its Respect project, one could not be entirely confident that the comrades would not argue for 'beefed up' blasphemy laws. For instance, Socialist Worker said exactly nothing about the christian protests against Jerry Springer - the opera. Why was that? Out of the SWP's profound respect for christianity, eager not to offend christians or be found guilty of 'christianophobia'? No, of course not. Rather, the SWP did not want to offend its (largely phantom) allies to its right in Respect: namely the Muslim Association of Britain, which favours the suppression of material it considers offensive and at the time of the Jerry Springer 'scandal' issued a stern press release condemning the screening on BBC2.

So we have to ask the SWP yet again - does it, like Mary Whitehouse and MAB, believe that the satirical portrayal of religious icons is beyond the pale?