Now, more than ever in its history, Ireland needs the freedom to blaspheme.
If you have recently seen the value of your home drop a couple of hundred grand, and have lost your job, you could be forgiven for spending a lot of time taking the Lord's name in vain.
But be warned: Under new proposals from Ireland’s Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, blasphemy could end costing you €100,000 ($133,000).
In a new section in Ireland’s Defamation Bill, the minister wants to insert a clause saying “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offense and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”
The police could also have the powers to raid alleged blasphemers' homes and seize their blasphemous material.
In the proposed bill, blasphemous matter is defined as material 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.”
This seems like a seriously bizarre step – you would think, after all, that Ireland has far more pressing matters to attend to right now. Like its survival for, instance.
Furthermore, this comes at a time when Britain, Ireland’s nearest neighbor – from where much of Irish law derived – repealed its blasphemy laws last year.
For heaven’s sake, then, where did Ahern get this ludicrous idea from? It certainly hasn’t been because of any widespread public support.
In response to a question from IrishCentral, Martin Long, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops in Ireland, said Thursday that they were not consulted by the minister on these proposals, and had yet to study them.
Brian Merriman, a spokesman for Ireland’s Equality Authority, an independent body set up to combat discrimination in Ireland, told IrishCentral that his organization had not been consulted, and had nothing further to say on the matter.
And a spokeswoman for the Irish Immigrant Council, Ruth Evans, said that this “was not really something that we would have a view on.”
A spokesman for the Irish Department of Justice said that the minister is not introducing a new Bill per se – rather, he is amending a defamation law dating back to 1961 which refers to blasphemy and which includes a seven-year prison term if you're convicted.
No one has ever been convicted under this law. The only case for blasphemy in Ireland occurred in 1999, when a fanatical Irish Catholic complained that a newspaper cartoon making fun of a priest was blasphemy.
The Irish Supreme Court ruled that because there was no agreed-upon legal definition as to what blasphemy is: “It is impossible to say of what offense of blasphemy consists.”
So, the case was thrown out.
The problem is that blasphemy is prohibited – but not defined - in the Irish Constitution, which says that “The publication or utterances of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offense which shall be publishable in accordance which the law.”
The sensible thing to do would be simply remove that particular section from the Irish Constitution. Under Irish law, any amendments to the Constitution would require a referendum.
But instead, as Charlie Flanagan, a Member of Parliament and justice spokesman for Fine Gael, the main opposition party, points out, Dermot Ahern has chosen to do the “least serious, least courageous thing.
“He has attempted to put a watery, subjective offense on the statute book where it is not needed and is impossible to enforce.”
As Flanagan rightly asks, how do you measure “outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”?
Presumably under this definition, Salman Rushdie would have been fined €100,000 for his book, “The Satantic Verses”, which outraged Britain’s Muslim community.
And if an Irish newspaper cartoonist were to repeat something along the lines of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons that caused such controversy in Denmark, then he or she too would presumably find themselves liable for a €100,000 fine.
When IrishCentral asked the Department of Justice about these two possibilities, a spokesman said that the law “is carefully worded to ensure that there will be no spurious cases taken.”
When asked how the minster would feel about jailing editors or writers who offend large groups of Muslims, the spokesman simply replied, “the law has removed the seven-year prison term in the 1961 Defamation Act.”
Ann James, the secretary of the Humanist Association of Ireland, is right to say that her organization is “aghast at the new proposals.”
In relation to discrimination of religious minorities, James points out that there are already existing laws in Ireland to prevent incitement to hatred.
The bottom line is that Ireland is a vastly different country than a few decades ago, when some of its best writers had to leave the country because of the suffocating censorship of the Catholic Church.
Dermot Ahern’s laws are a throwback to those bad old days.
In any sensible liberal democracy, “freedom to believe” has to balanced by “freedom not to believe.”
I should be free to say that the Prophet Muhammad most definitely did not fly on a night flight to Jerusalem on a winged horse called Buraq, as Muslims believe. Nor do the Jihadis will have 72 virgins waiting for them in heaven.
But that’s just me: Catholics and Muslims are free to hold their beliefs. Just as I should be free to think and say that their supernatural fantasies are idiotic.
In other words, I should be free to blaspheme.
Fortunately for me, I live in the New York, where it’s still possible to get away with these things.
I’ll guess I’ll have to hold my tongue the next time I visit Ireland.