Monday, November 15, 2010

Bishop Opposes Blasphemy

... laws. He opposes blasphemy laws. Although we assume he also opposes blasphemy.

Our favorite conservative Anglican, by a wide margin, is is Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester. In a Guardian op-ed, he argues that Pakistan's blasphemy law must be repealed. This is, as Egg readers surely understand, the very least that can be said. Laws against blasphemy, in whatever nation and of whatever good intention, are by nature unjustifiable impositions upon the fundamental right of speech.

If God chooses to strike a blasphemer dead, there is plenty of lightning in heaven. Failing that, however, the rest of us have a duty to bear the abuse. Because God has given our neighbors, however impolite, bigoted or downright stupid, the right to express their opinions freely and without fear of harm.

Beyond this straightforward assertion -- which is, we hasten to observe, an assertion of Western post-Enlightenment values, alien to cultures in which the Enlightenment has yet to take hold -- Bishop Nazir-Ali throws out a few tidbits, and his readers offer more in their comments. You probably knew -- or at least guessed -- that laws against blasphemy exist in many or most predominantly Muslim nations, where they are used principally to punish Christians and other members of religious minorities. This means that, as with the American death penalty, one might therefore admire the laws in principle, while recognizing that they are discriminatory in application. (In this case, we despise even the principle, but some readers may feel otherwise.) But there's more.

Did you know that the first anti-blasphemy laws on the Indian subcontinent were imposed by the British raj? Yup. The idea was to keep the wogs from fighting each other, with all the racism and paternalism that slur implies. Laws in England, which (at least theoretically) protected Christianity alone from public ridicule, were only abolished in 2008. And one of the newest anti-blasphemy laws was put into effect this year, in the Republic of Ireland. So don't mistake our prattle about Western Enlightenment values for some blanket endorsement of Europe over Asia. There are freedom-hating idiots everywhere.

Still, there are some regional peculiarities worth noting. Nazir-Ali says that penalties under the British law were typically mild. The Irish law permits fines up to 25,000 euros, which doesn't sound especially mild -- but let's see if it is ever imposed. But depending upon the precise blasphemy, the law in Pakistan imposes a mandatory life sentence or death penalty. We'd much rather pay the fine, and so would you.

We're not saying that America's supposed ally in the war against extremist violence is a country that enshrines such violence in its own laws. We're not saying that Pakistan fails not merely to respect fundamental human rights, but even to understand them. We would never say such a thing unless it were -- oh, wait a second. That's what we're saying.

No comments: