Blasphemy is a form of offensive expression (in words or images) concerning God or the gods, sacred persons or objects, religious doctrines, scriptures or practices, which is defined as illegal and traditionally prosecuted in the West through the criminal courts. For an expression to be judged blasphemous, someone must take offence. Hence: blasphemy is an expression of religious dissent in a mocking, indecent or insulting manner that offends someone.
In Christian culture and law, the offence of blasphemy has traditionally been situated midway between profanity (casual rudeness in religious matters) and heresy (deliberate rejection of the doctrines of the established church or prevailing religion). Since the ‘Rushdie Affair’, however, blasphemy has been perceived as a major threat to public order in the multi-ethnic, multi-faith societies of the ‘postcolonial’ world.
Islam has no strict equivalent of the concept of blasphemy. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa (religious judgement) against Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses condemned him to death for the Islamic crimes of treason and apostasy.
Censorship campaigns can be amplifiers as well as silencers: anti-blasphemy campaigns have often served to publicise the causes of both the prosecuted and the prosecutors.
Milestones in Australian Blasphemy Law
Like other ex-British colonial countries, Australia inherited its blasphemy laws from English common law. English blasphemy law has two peculiarities: it protects only Christianity from insult (whereas many other countries, including India, now have comprehensive blasphemy laws, protecting all religions from insult) and the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel (for written material) have never been defined by an act of Parliament or written into the statute book.
By the 1880s, when Australia’s modern censorship apparatus was set up, blasphemy had become an all but dead criminal offence, following the unpopular prosecution, in 1871, of a member of the Sydney Secular Society, William Orlando Jones, for delivering public lectures in Parramatta Park in which he declared ‘the Holy Bible the most immoral book that has ever been written and … not a fit book for any female to read’. Public protest over the Jones prosecution meant that the authorities made no more attempts to prosecute freethinkers under the blasphemy laws. Instead, they used other laws.
The main Australian organ of blasphemy in the 19th century was the Liberator and, in the early 20th century, Ross’s Magazine of Protest, Personality and Progress — freethought journals that promoted atheism, anti-clericalism, anti-monarchism, anti-militarism and (in Ross’s case) socialism; but the Australian Government tried to suppress these journals under customs, post office and obscenity laws rather than by reactivating the blasphemy laws. The latter laws lay dormant for much of the 20th century, until international Muslim protest at the publication of The Satanic Verses put blasphemy back into the headlines and onto the political, legal and cultural agendas of both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ nations in 1988. In 1989, London bookshops stocking Rushdie’s novel were firebombed and booksellers as far from the epicentre of the ‘Rushdie Affair’ as Melbourne received bomb threats (and the Mary Martin Bookshop in South Yarra was vandalised by a protester).
The ‘Rushdie Affair’ not only galvanised many Muslims into defending their faith from insult by non-Muslims and many Western liberals into campaigning for abolition of the blasphemy laws in the interests of disinhibited free speech; it also galvanised Christians and other religious groups to defend their own faiths from insult.
The fallout of the ‘Rushdie Affair’ has included the ‘Serrano Affair’, the ‘Danish Cartoon Affair’ and, most recently, the controversy surrounding the Facebook competition for the ‘best cartoon’ of the Prophet, called ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’ (20 May, 2010), which resulted in Pakistan’s government blocking all access to Facebook and YouTube by Pakistan’s 2.4 million internet users.