Iceland is one country which has recently abolished blasphemy. Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or a lack of reverence for God. It may sound like a crime from a murky, illiterate and unenlightened past but it is in fact becoming all the more pertinent in the 21st century and shows just how the use of words can have life or death consequences. Other countries should follow Iceland’s lead.
Apart from the tumult of a financial crisis several years ago, Iceland is an Atlantic outcrop of relative calm, especially when it comes to religious tolerance. I have been there and although I balked at the cost of its beer, I marvelled at its geysers, hills and its churches, which are as Spartan as its landscapes.
Those bare Lutheran wooden houses of God (Reykjavik Cathedral is pictured above) are in keeping with the minimalist aesthetic that the faith’s founder, Martin Luther, espoused when he was nailing on the church in Wittenburg the 95 theses in his shot across the bows against the Catholic Church that has been heard down the centuries.
His view opposing the purchase of indulgences from the clergy for favourable terms in the hereafter would have been considered as more than just blasphemy by the then Pontiff; they were heresy and quite possibly, apostasy, as well.
Fast forward to today and the Pirate Party in Iceland, which campaigns for internet and data freedom, put forward a bill which was accepted by the country’s lawmakers. In practice it will not make a significant difference but it does send out an important message to the world about what we can say and when we can say it.
The spur to their action was in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when gunmen stormed its offices due to its track record of challenging Islam and the prophet Mohammed. At issue there, were its cartoons, not words, but both are forms of expression existing within written and visual language.
France, which has been the scene of a further brutal attack in the name of Islam since then, has a separation of Church and State enshrined by the revolutionaries of 1789 which has meant that its citizens can express themselves freely. Or so they thought.
Almost every historic battle for free expression, from Socrates to Galileo, has begun as a struggle over what is and is not “blasphemy”.
When the writer Salman Rushdie went into hiding after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, those who stood up for him, were mostly writers and intellectuals who cited the right to free speech and the right to uphold freedom of expression.
However, the argument never centred on whether what he said was actually blasphemous. The chance to have a debate on whether ‘blasphemy’ can possibly exist in a secular society was never had and, as such, an opportunity was probably missed.
Salman Rushdie, raised a Muslim, concluded that the Koran was a book made by the hands of men and was thus a fit subject for literary criticism and fictional borrowing.
The words he wrote had a cost though. The senile Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini gave the book the worst review in history. He imposed a fatwa and offered a reward for anyone who could kill Mr Rushdie. In light of this suborning for murder, his Japanese translator was stabbed to death, attempts were made on the lives of his Norwegian and Italian translators. Clearly words, in whatever language, matter.
At the heart of any argument over blasphemy, is that for it to exist, we have to accept that the words in holy books are the revealed word of the Almighty or a higher being. What is blasphemous to a Christian, clearly would not be to a Muslim, a Hindu or a Jew.
For any country’s laws to reflect this multi-confessional problem would be virtually impossible and so governments and politicians in the west, tend to proceed or tailor their views to a burden of proof of what ‘causes offence’, which is an intellectually dishonest and rather large red herring, akin to the ones that swim rather merrily in the waters off Iceland.
A large chunk of humanity may well reject the New Testament, or the Vedas, equally the Torah, as not being revealed by a ‘higher power’, but adherents of these faiths are less likely to take offence at criticism of what they believe. If your beliefs are strong enough, they should be able to stand up to scrutiny.
Taking the biblical example, I may question any of the Gospel’s claims that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, but I am sure my Christian interlocutors are more than capable of batting away my claims, defending them or at least ignoring what I say. Whether they take offence is another matter but blasphemy it is not.
It is far more problematic for such a challenge to be made to Islam. For there to be an honest debate on that would require an honest debate over whether the Koran is universally true and the unexpurgated word of God as revealed by the Angel Gabriel, for all time, which is the stance of even the most moderate Muslim, of whatever stripe.
So sitting at this table of religious discourse is a quiet but rather pervasive presence. He is an uninvited guest but now publishers, media outlets, broadcasters have to take his views into account over what they say, write or broadcast about Islam. There is no blasphemy law in the UK of course, but what do we have instead? A rather insidious facsimile.
These arguments involve mere syntax. Words zealots of whatever stripes may consider what could offend not just them, but the sensibilities of an omnipotent creator. Words that presumably, if you follow their logic, He must have come up with in the first place.
If words have the power to offend not just those on Earth, but the Big Guy upstairs, they must be very powerful indeed.