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Paris shootings rekindle debate on blasphemy law

By Susan Gately - 10 January, 2015

Freedom of expression has its limits says Irish Moslem scholar.

Dr Ali Selim, Islamic Cultural Institute, Ireland

Dr Ali Selim, Islamic Cultural Institute, Ireland

The attack by Islamic fundamentalists on the headquarters of a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has reignited the debate on blasphemy law in Ireland.

None of the main Irish daily papers carried the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, unlike their European counterparts which in some countries made a point of reprinting the offending cartoons.

Moslem scholar, Dr Ali Selim, had appealed to Irish media not to reprint the cartoons.

Dr Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Dublin condemned the killing of 12 people in an attack on the offices of the Paris-based publication describing it as an atrocity.

He insisted that he believed in freedom of expression and speech.

However, he said that a particular image depicting the prophet Mohommed was offensive to equality.

He said he would take “legal advice” if Irish publications republished or tweeted cartoons mocking Islam.

Ireland’s 1937 constitution affirms the right to freedom of expression, but makes the publication of “utterances of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter” an offence punishable at law.

Blasphemy was defined and legislated for in 2009 by a new offence of “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” which carries a maximum fine of €25,000.

The offence consists of uttering material “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”.

While Ireland has a criminal offence of blasphemy, the UK does not, but neither country reprinted the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which have caused so much offence to Muslims.

Speaking at a debate on blasphemy on Newstalk, Irish Independent commentator, David Quinn questioned why the cartoons were not reprinted in the main British papers, given that they are not under the threat of an action for blasphemy.

David Quinn

David Quinn, Columnist Irish Independent

It could have been out of fear he said, but there was another possibility too.

“They might have decided that the cartoons are disrespectful of Moslem beliefs and therefore out of respect they won’t publish them.”

Also speaking to Newstalk, Dr Selim said that journalists would not mock the Holocaust, “then can they do that to what Moslems believe in?”

He said there had to be limits to freedom of expression.

“If there is no limit it turns into aggression and trans – aggression. Basically with the publication of these cartoons let’s ask one simple question: ‘What common good does it achieve?'”

Dr Selim said that both the cartoonists and the attackers had made mistakes. “One did a mistake, the other committed an atrocity,” he said.

Speaking in the Newstalk debate Michael Nugent from Atheist Ireland said it was important to stand up to those people “who are prepared to murder to enforce their vision of society and democracy. They have to be stood up to.”

In November 2013, the Convention on the Constitution considered the issue of blasphemy, and having heard submissions on both sides, ultimately voted in favour of holding a referendum to abolish the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution.

The convention voted to replace blasphemy with an prohibition of “incitement to religious hatred”. While the referendum has been promised, no date has been set for it.

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