Recently the Scottish government published a Bill that heralded an end to national laws against blasphemy.
In the same fell swoop, the centuries-old prohibition on criticizing religion will be replaced with a ban on any speech that “stirs up hatred” against categories of people, based on age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
At first glance, the intention of the law sounds reasonable. It is founded on the basic principle that “hating” somebody is wrong, and that certainly, nobody should be subjected to violence based on such hate. Part I of the Bill consolidates largely pre-existing legislation that deals with aggravation based on prejudice.
Part II, however, becomes more problematic by focusing on introducing new measures to outlaw the “stirring up of hatred”. This extends beyond violence, and links to the “displaying, publishing or distributing”, or even possession of “inflammatory material” with a view of sharing it with others. “Inflammatory material” is described as that which is “threatening, abusing or insulting” to those in protected categories. Close readers of the text will hear the haunted echo of the old blasphemy law for which this Bill exists to repeal, which suppressed freedom of the press and of opinion by outlawing any “composing, printing or publishing [of] any blasphemous or seditious libel”.
Nobody likes to feel insulted. But, when transcribed from personal preference into law, the definition of “hating” or “insulting” can be extremely illusive. As a subjective term, one can label something “insulting” because it personally offends them, even if the speaker or creator intended to express his or her view with the utmost due respect. The burden of proof to show that the person was not insulted falls on the accused – often an impossible task, given that personal feelings can seldom be refuted.
According to the proposed Bill, the penalty for publishing a piece of art, sharing a pamphlet, or playing a video to others that is deemed unacceptable by the Court can be up to twelve month’s imprisonment on a summary conviction – or on indictment, up to seven years.
The predecessor blasphemy law sought to protect the feelings of people of faith at the expense of others. However, in the name of progress, this law simply flips that on its head.
As of 2016, just 7.2% of our population regularly attend Church, with figures estimated to drop to 5.3% (290,000 people) by 2025. As the religion of secularism takes its stand as a prominent influencer of cultural norms, those that hold the megaphone must not silence the alternative, diverse ideas of smaller groups. A dominant ideology should be strong enough to win out against open challenge and critique.
When I left Scotland in 2018 to join ADF International’s advocacy at the United Nations, I was exposed to the reality of censorship, blasphemy bans, and hate speech laws in other countries, and how they are used to suppress minorities. Our team has recently addressed the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of religious censorship in Kazakhstan, where in 2017, the government punished 101 individuals for possessing, transporting, or disseminating religious literature with heavy fines, jail sentences, and the destruction of their books. My colleagues in India, at the forefront of the fight for freedom of expression, have supported countless clients, including a blind pastor and his wife, who have faced police brutality for simply for expressing religious beliefs at their own services. In Pakistan in 2018, Asia Bibi was freed after eight years on death row following an accusation that she had insulted Islam in a private conversation with co-workers.
Indeed, even in Europe, punishment for the “wrong” speech is already becoming more frequent. In Finland, a former Minister and grandmother is facing police investigation for a simple Tweet, in which she asked the leadership of her Church about their Biblical justification for sponsoring the national Pride march. In Malta, meanwhile, a new Bill sits before the parliament with striking similarities to the one in Scotland, condemning anyone who “stirs up hatred” by exhibiting what is perceived as “insulting behaviour” with a six-to-eighteen month jail sentence.
In Scotland, the Bill contains protective caveats for behaviour and materials that criticize religion, or aim to convert an individual from one faith to another. The Bill also allows for criticism of “sexual conduct or practices”. However, even with such provisions, the Bill threatens the inclusion of many views that may be interpreted as “offensive”. The parameters are broader than for the containment of the religious “extremes”. They could keep non-faith-based, yet challenging voices out from important and timely societal conversations about – for example – how to best care for children questioning their gender.
Silencing a view that does not hold the majority silences free and fair debate. Repealing one oppressive speech law does not mandate the institutionalization of another. A society that refuses to engage with different faiths, perspectives, and ideas is not tolerant. For a land famous for cherishing “freedom” above all else the proposed Bill is a disappointment. Freedom is found in the fulfilment of the human rights to freedom of belief and of expression of everybody living in Scotland. Whoever they are, whatever they believe.
Lois McLatchie, is a legal analyst at the UN for religious freedom charity ADF International