Some days, it’s not easy to be Irish.
I’ve been dragging around that sickening feeling since this past weekend, when I was reading the news from the Old Country and came upon a story that actor/comedian/author Stephen Fry is up on charges for blasphemy.
You read that right. Blasphemy. And we’re not talking about Cotton Mather’s Massachusetts. Or Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. But dear, damp, dreary Mother Ireland.
Here’s how it went down. Back in 2015, Fry was a guest on the RTE network’s program, “The Meaning of Life.” The show’s host, Gay Byrne, asked Fry what he planned to say to God if he ever arrived at the gates of Heaven. Yes, I know. It’s a tiresome, clichéd, high-school-newspaper type of question. But Fry grabbed it and ran.
“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of god would do that?”
And there’s more. “The god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.”
If Byrne’s question was sophomoric — and it was — so was Fry’s answer. His reply is the worn-out blather of an aging village atheist. I was not offended. And just to establish my credentials, I say this as a confession-going, Mass-attending, daily-prayer-saying, holy-medal-wearing Catholic. Every religious believer of every stripe has heard this diatribe for thousands of years. I’d lay serious money that Pharaoh said something similar after the Ten Plagues played merry hell in Egypt.
So, Stephen Fry is not the problem. The problem is that shortly after the program aired, an Irishman who prefers to remain anonymous saw the show and went to the police station in Ennis, County Clare, where, according to the Irish Independent, he told an officer he “wanted to report Fry for uttering blasphemy and RTE for publishing/broadcasting it and that [he] believed these were criminal offences under the Defamation Act 2009.” The officer who took the complainant’s statement asked if he had been offended by what Fry had said. The gentleman replied, “I told the Garda [the Irish term for police] that I did not want to include this as I had not personally been offended by Fry’s comments — I added that I simply believed that the comments made by Fry on RTE were criminal blasphemy and that I was doing my civic duty by reporting a crime.”
A few weeks later, the gentleman heard from a detective at the police station in Donnybrook (oh, the irony!) who told him his complaint against Fry was being investigated.
But let’s get back to the point. The charge is blasphemy. In 21st-century Western Europe. And the law was passed in 2009. The legislation prohibits “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion.” Upon conviction, the maximum penalty is a fine of €25,000 ($27,356.46).
A representative from Atheist Ireland issued a statement that the case against Fry “highlights a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment.
How did Irish legislators wander from the Isle of Saints and Scholars and into the fatwa-ridden realm of the ayatollahs? Since 1937, Irish legislators have been debating whether blasphemy should be included in the penal code as a punishable offence. The “crime” hung out in legal limbo for decades because the Irish criminal code never got around to defining what constituted blasphemy. Then, in 2009, Ireland finally spelled out the crime. And this the year after Irish delegates to the United Nations, along with other delegates from the European Union, voted to reject a motion put forward by Egypt and supported Islamic nations that “defamation of religion” should be recognized in international law as a criminal offence.
The Guardian (UK) reports that soon after the 2009 anti-blasphemy law was passed, at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a representative from Pakistan urged the committee to declare that blasphemy was not an exercise of free speech, and recommended that the Human Rights Council adopt verbatim the language of the Irish anti-blasphemy law. By the way, in Pakistan blasphemers are sentenced to death. And the gentleman from Pakistan declared that he was speaking to the UN on behalf of his country, as well as on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
It’s unlikely that Stephen Fry’s case will ever go to trial. Back in 1999 Ireland’s Supreme Court declared the notion that blasphemy was criminal would undermine the principle of religious equality enshrined in the Irish Constitution. In light of the court’s ruling, how the 2009 law was passed is a mystery. Furthermore, prosecuting Fry for blasphemy would make Ireland an international laughing-stock, except among the 57 member states of the aforementioned Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Incredibly, Ireland’s anti-blasphemy law has its champions. The defenders say that the previous laws, dating back to 1937, were ineffectual because they prohibited blasphemy only against the Christian God. The 2009 law is, in the minds of its defenders, a great leap forward because it criminalizes blasphemy against any religion.
It is a rationale that leaves the most blarney-prone speechless. That living, breathing, literate, human beings who (one assumes) have IQ scores in the three-digit range would argue that the law must step in to ensure that no one says anything that might hurt the feelings of a religious person is, well, beyond belief.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of The Greatest Brigade: How the Irish Cleared the Way to Victory in the American Civil War.