Blasphemy

Official: You have been found guilty by the elders of the town of uttering the name of the Lord and so as a blasphemer you are to be stoned to death.

Matthias: Look, I’d had a lovely supper and all I said to my wife was, “That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.”

Official: Blasphemy! He’s said it again.

— Monty Python’s Life of Brian

You may be delighted to know that the common law crime of blasphemy is still technically in force in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia — part of our residual colonial inheritance. Every law reform commission ever created has recommended its abolition, but that’s never quite happened. Not that anyone’s been prosecuted for blasphemy for a very long time but, these days, such hangovers make me a little nervous.

Interestingly, in English law, blasphemy was only a crime if the religion that one insulted was the Church of England. Someone once tried to prosecute Salman Rushdie for blaspheming Islam in his book The Satanic Verses. It was knocked out by the courts on the basis that, to extend the crime to all religions rather than just protecting the state church of which the English monarch is head, would open a can of worms nobody wants to eat. In 2008, the UK abolished the crime altogether. It still exists in plenty of other countries.

The former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, is today in an Indonesian prison kicking off a two-year sentence for breaching Indonesia’s extant criminal offence of blasphemy. Indonesia being the feted paragon of the modern, moderate majority-Muslim nation, the prosecution of a prominent Christian (and ethnically Chinese) politician for blaspheming against Islam is not to be lightly ignored.

Indonesia introduced its blasphemy law in 1965, shortly after independence. It prohibits people from attempting to gain public support for interpretations of or activities within a religion, which are in deviation of the basic teachings of that religion. It applies to any religion which is “embraced by the people of Indonesia”.  Technically, that could mean religions other than Islam. Practically, it means Islam.

Ahok copped a conviction and two years’ prison as a result of something he said during the recent campaign in which he was trying to be re-elected governor of Jakarta in the face of an aggressive and openly bigoted campaign by some Muslim groups to vote him out. On the way to losing the election, Ahok was explicitly targeted by advocates at the less tolerant end of Islamic interpretation who were loudly saying that the Koran prohibits Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim.

Ahok’s mistake (according to the court) was to say, publicly, that those who were arguing that Muslims couldn’t vote for him were deceiving Muslims (on the basis that the Koran says no such thing). That match to the bonfire did its work, and he was repeatedly misquoted as saying that the Koran itself is wrong.

Obviously, the confusion might have been sorted out in the cool-headed environs of the North Jakarta District Court, where five judges could sift the politics and religious/racial vilification from the actual law. But, no. He’s been slotted.

The Indonesian justice system is admittedly labyrinthine and difficult to interpret. It’s possible that Ahok will be released on appeal, re-imprisoned on further appeal and eventually convicted of something entirely different for purely political reasons.

[Islamic blasphemy trial threatens Indonesian democracy]

However it ends legally, politically Ahok’s career is finished and it’s finished because he got on the wrong side of the dominant religion in his country. I’d love to add that Stephen Fry is facing the same fate by virtue of being investigated by Irish police for blasphemy because he said some particularly mean things about God recently, but the Irish authorities decided not to lay charges and pretty much ruined my narrative.

Ahok will do. His case neatly illustrates the role that blasphemy plays at the intersection between law and state-sponsored religion. Every nation state has grappled with the problem of how to reconcile government and faith; those who maintain that the very foundation of their nationhood is a gift from God have the most difficulty with this.

The United States has perhaps the world’s strongest constitutional enshrinement of separation of church from state, protected by its Supreme Court to the extent that Bible readings in public schools are prohibited as violating the First Amendment. However, the Declaration of Independence, holding certain truths to be self-evident, immediately says that the people’s rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are “endowed by their Creator”.  It’s a tricky balance to maintain, keeping God out of government when you believe that he created it in the first place — presumably meaning that it’s also his to take away.

Likewise, modern-day Turkey was established as a strictly secular state, albeit one whose population is over 99% Muslim. It’s shifting progressively back to re-instating Islam as the state religion. Indonesia is in a similar political/demographic position, but with a more explicit acceptance that religion has a direct role to play in civil society and needs protection from anti-religious attack.

The same foundation has blasphemy lingering as part of our own law. The Queen of Australia retains as one of her titles “Defender of the Faith”, granted originally to King Henry VIII by the Pope for being an excellent Roman Catholic, and adapted without apparent irony to his role as head of the schismatic Church of England. Each English sovereign since has been the head of the church, and consequently Australia’s head of state is also, in religious doctrine and law, directly responsible to God.

[Should freedom of speech extend to God? A blasphemous debate]

Mere historical oddity this may seem to our modern democracy (one that still has a foreign hereditary monarch as its ultimate chief, so modern it’s post-modern), in many countries it’s a genuine deal. Just ask Ahok.

Whether Ahok actually committed blasphemy isn’t the point; it’s a crime of infinite subjectivity, because religious faith and belief are not capable of definition to an extent that can allow identification of which words will cause them to be undermined. Faith, no matter how encoded a religion becomes, is a personal matter. Law simply can’t deal with it.

Ahok is also not an anomaly. He’s a high-profile victim of a developing trend that is most pronounced in some Muslim countries but of which signs are appearing in several Buddhist, Hindu and Christian nations as well. It’s the re-assertion by organised religion of its pre-Enlightenment place at the centre of secular authority.

As the world walks further down the path of faith-based conflict, religion will tend to move more towards the levers of governmental power. Blasphemy is an obscure relic today, but it’s making a comeback.  It’s interesting in that context to reflect that we never got around to killing it off.

Peter Fray

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