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Sunday 11 January 2015


To honour the dead, we should defend free speech

A practical reponse to the murder of journalists would be to get blasphemy out of our Constitution, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Dr Ali Selim. Photo: Andrew Downes

It was just as well that defender of the Irish underclass Jonathan Swift didn't have social media to contend with when, in 1729, he suggested the poor might breed babies for food. "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled" would have set off a slavering Twitter mob.

Satire insults the humourless and the thick. I can hear the denunciations now of his wicked endorsement of cannibalism and the calls for his sacking from the deanery of St Patrick's Cathedral, his arrest, his execution and, no doubt, his murder.

Swift - whose career in England was blighted because Queen Anne thought him blasphemous and who had a sensible Irish jury to thank that his writings were not found seditious - would have incurred too the wrath of Dr Ali Selim of the Dublin Islamic Cultural Centre, who has been opining about the implications of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Satire isn't Selim's thing. An enthusiast for Sharia law, as he made clear when on 4FM Niall Boylan asked if he retweeted a Mohammed cartoon would his life be in danger. "Not your life would be in danger", said Selim, "but definitely we will check the Irish law and if there is any legal channel against you, we will take it."

Selim is thrilled that Ireland bucked the free-world trend by introducing a blasphemy law in 2009. Wonderfully inclusive, it forbids material considered "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion", when the intent and result is "outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion". That should neatly cover the Church of Cannibals, angry at the implication that there's something wrong with eating babies.

In an article last year opposing the removal from the Constitution of the offence of blasphemy, Dr Selim said it was vital to defend "the Irish heritage of religiosity". Despite the divergence about the definition of religion, "believers of all faiths consensually state that certain aspects of their religion are holy and hence should be respected by others."

It wasn't just a depiction of Mohammed that was off-limits. "According to Islam, God, angels, holy scriptures, prophets, disciples or companions and places of worship are to be protected by the state against any publication or utterance of blasphemous matter."

I know journalists are often a pain but there's a reason for their existence and Ireland would be a better place if it had a freer press. Over-protected by the law, an oppressive society, our "you-can't-say-that" mentality and, latterly, increasingly by stifling political correctness, our culpable politicians, clergy of all faiths, businessmen, bishops, public servants, lawyers, terrorists and other pillars of society were and are safer here than they deserve to be.

Still, the Paris massacre has made the outlook for freedom of speech much much worse. Jyllands-Posten, publishers in 2005 of the Danish Mohammed cartoons, said bleakly last week that it wouldn't reprint its own or Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. "We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years…We are aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation." I railed against the failure of more than a few newspapers to republish the Hebdo cartoons, but while I still think that it should have been done simultaneously and Europe-wide, I've no answer to the editors who say simply that they can't put their staff at risk.

Terror terrifies, but we don't have to shut up and cave in. There are more pluses than minuses to social media, as the global spread of Mohammed cartoons has proved. Even Dr Selim won't be able to take legal action against so many of us.

On Friday, Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri of the Al-Mustafa Islamic Educational and Cultural Centre in Dublin 15 told a packed congregation that it "must admit and must accept that there is a problem of extremism among Muslims". Extremists, he said, were the "biggest blasphemers of all" and were denounced by Mohammed as "the worst of the worst people". Muslims had a duty to speak out and condemn unconditionally such actions as those in Paris. (as indeed did Dr Selim).

Some Irish politicians have done well. Told that Dr Selim wished to talk to her about her new political party, Lucinda Creighton said crisply: "Anyone who feels the media should be curtailed from unfettered freedom has no place in our political party".

Simon Coveney has said the Constitution must be amended. Public opinion is onside. I listened last week to David Quinn of the Iona Institute and Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland agreeing in perfect harmony on the need to get rid of the blasphemy law. Now is the time for the political parties to find a way to do this speedily. It's about the only practical thing Ireland can do to show we care about murdered journalists and freedom of speech.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards