To Conway Hall For The CFI Blasphemy Conference

An ideal warm-up act to the rally for free expression on 11 February 2012.

I attended an excellent blasphemy conference on 28 January 2012, organised by the Centre For Inquiry.

I didn’t take any notes and in any case this post isn’t intended to be a formal record of the event, so apologies if my recollections are different to those of other attendees (or indeed the speakers). My intention is just to highlight some of the themes.

Kenan Malik

Malik’s detailed talk included a brief history of blasphemy law and in particular how it has generally been a method of achieving social control.

In this way the law of blasphemy clearly serves the interests of the powerful at the expense of the weak or powerless, and so any notion that one should refrain from blasphemy or other forms of controversial speech on the grounds of offending members of a certain group (Muslims, for example) is nonsense. Refusal to criticise or mock Islam is quite contrary to the interests of Muslims – apart from the Muslims that hold power and fear over other Muslims (or those who are classed as such), and who naturally have every interest in maintaining the status quo.

I made the point that the West must have a consistent approach to freedom of speech. For example, in Germany it is illegal to deny the Jewish holocaust and there is also talk in France of making denial of the Armenian genocide a criminal offence. Such laws have no place whatsoever in a free society and I object to them unreservedly (and unapologetically) for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they restrict freedom of speech for no justifiable reason because they do not harm anyone (however upset Jews or Armenians might be that people might have an alternative view of history). Secondly, they force people to accept positions not pursuant to a rigorous and unhindered analysis of the factual matrix but rather through fear of criminal sanction. Thirdly, they have the potential to lead to conspiracy theories. Fourthly, they provide the perfect excuse for religious fanatics to argue for blasphemy protection. I have never heard a religious fanatic articulate a case for blasphemy protection on this basis (probably because I haven’t really heard a religious fanatic articulate anything of much significance) but there is certainly an uncomfortable parallel here.

We must be unequivocal in our approach to freedom of speech: if something upsets you or offends you, however deeply you hold your views (and even, as in the case of the Jewish and Armenian genocides, which are purely secular restrictions on freedom of speech with no element of the divine and which therefore lend themselves to objective analysis of truth claims) then that is too bad. I repeat: that is too bad. That is a price of living in a free society. It will not be the role of the state or any organ of the state to protect your feelings.

Andrew Copson

An excellent presentation. The most interesting (and disturbing) aspect was how the now-defunct blasphemy legislation in the United Kingdom, however bad it was, had one saving grace: the law was clear and its application was subject to the full machinery of the rule of law, such as open court proceedings and the right of appeal.

Blasphemy is no longer a criminal offence in the United Kingdom but there are plenty of ways in which it rears its unwelcome head, such as via the Advertising Standards Agency and the Committee of Advertising Practice.

Far from being light-touch regulation the workings of these organisations are applied arbitrarily and their legal basis is unclear, and they clearly affect freedom of expression (as Copson highlighted with some amusing yet worrying case studies). Moreover, the workings of these organisations are not subject to the ordinary safeguards of the rule of law.

I agree that the current ‘backdoor’ system of blasphemy restrictions is highly undemocratic. I pointed out that there is a worrying tendency these days to equate democracy – consciously or otherwise – with a crude numbers game: that is, if enough people take offence at something, or if a majority of people vote for something, that is perceived as having democratic worth in and of itself.

This is an argument that the National Secular Society is currently facing in its legal challenge to council prayers, one of the legal defences of Bideford Town Council being that the council members voted to have prayers.

The next time I have a business meeting where there are a majority of males, and a couple of attractive females, I shall propose a vote that the women should be topless for the duration of the meeting. Assuming the vote is passed I shall tell the women to get their tits out – in the name of local democracy, of course.

This pure mathematics approach is a demented form of democracy; nothing more than mob-rule with a garnish of due process. Democracy is about core principles such as the rule of law, accountability of state institutions and equality for all, rather than just integers. Democracy is not the X-Factor. For this reason I am not convinced on the desirability of the e-petitions system.

Austin Dacey

A more technical presentation – unsurprising given Dacey’s philosophy background – but nonetheless a very eloquent and even moving one.  (I got a shiver when he mentioned that, despite being godless, this didn’t mean there would be nothing he would be willing to die for.)

One of the key themes of his talk was that we must not let religious people claim they are the only ones to hold things ‘sacred’ (but not that this should restrict freedom of speech anyway).

One of his arguments I particularly liked was that the religious are often the greatest blasphemers – because every prophet blasphemes every other prophet and deity that went before.

Jacob Mchangama

Another thorough presentation, this time with more of a legal focus (again, unsurprising given that Mchangama is a lawyer).

There was an interesting discussion of just how far freedom of speech should go. For example, although there are many passages in the Koran and other religious texts that are murderous, it cannot follow they should be banned. There are numerous secular books that contain violence. The American Declaration of Independence is explicitly violent, too.

Mchangama explained how refraining from blasphemy on the basis that Muslims are incapable of behaving rationally when they see ink is akin to treating them as ADHD-sufferers who should not be given matches.

This was an important point. Blaspheming against Islam does not dehumanise Muslims. Refraining from blaspheming against Islam on the (unsaid, unsayable and untrue) basis that Muslims are a highly volatile chemical compound, a force of nature to be controlled and managed, certainly does dehumanise them.

I made the point that we find ourselves in a depressing position where the ordinary burden of proof regarding freedom of speech has been reversed. The onus is increasingly on those who exercise freedom of speech to justify their actions, rather than (as it should be) on those who seek to restrict it to articulate a convincing case for censorship. This was also a point made by Copson, who said freedom of speech used to be viewed as a good thing whereas it is now viewed as a bad thing.

Maryam Namazie

Probably the most powerful speech (you can read it here).

I made the point that I felt let down by our political leaders who can happily use the language of secularism when talking about countries in the Middle East (because it’s the most benign way of saying, ‘We don’t want the Islamists in power’), but that they can’t bring themselves to use such language when discussing the United Kingdom. In the context of the United Kingdom, secularism is often a dirty word for many politicians, left and right.

Namazie urged us not to give up on the Arab Spring or to reclassify it as an Arab Winter, as it really does have the potential to create lasting change. She said it is unsurprising that Islamists fill the power vacuum in such circumstances, and I agree with this because I suppose they have existing power infrastructures – official and unofficial – which they can use and abuse. As I mentioned in one of my first blog posts, I take confidence from the fact there was not a huge religious rhetoric to the protests, and that I don’t believe the protestors are interested in trading one lack of freedom (dictatorship) for another (worse) lack of freedom (theocracy).

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Many thanks to Stephen Law of CFI and, of course, all the speakers.

Please make every effort to come to the rally for free expression on 11 February 2012.  I mentioned this to a (secularish) Jewish colleague of mine but she told me that, sadly, she would not be able to come on account of – you guessed it – the Sabbath.  It appears that this merciful, loving God of hers will permit the urgent defence of critical civil liberties at certain times of the week only.

For moral reasons, presumably.

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