The Beginners’ Guide to Blasphemy Day
International Blasphemy Day seeks to dismantle the wall which exists between religion and criticism
Unprovoked swearing could have landed you in prison a couple of centuries ago. Inquisitor Innico Caracciolo was particularly shocked with the Maltese population’s affection for the profane. Pope Benedict XIV even published an edict which was to be read in public spaces, including churches, condemning blasphemers. However, to theirs and other inquisitions’ disappointment, blaspheming has remained part of the cultural identity of a number of societies.
30 September, now known as International Blasphemy Day, is the anniversary of the publication of 12 illustrations that depicted Mohammed in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The publication sparked worldwide riots, and added to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the assassination of Jordanian political cartoonist Nahed Hattar, the debate surrounding blasphemy continues to bubble beneath the surface of an already tense crossroads in modern history.
International Blasphemy Day seeks to “dismantle the wall which exists between religion and criticism”. Our fascination with comedy, drama, religious fever and free speech has routinely produced the edgy and heretical in both low and high culture settings. Sometimes it’s protested, sometimes it’s boycotted, but the right to be religiously offended is the right to be a modern citizen, or so people would have you believe. As Justin Trottier puts it “We’re not seeking to offend, but if in the course of dialogue and debate, people become offended, that’s not an issue for us. There is no human right not to be offended.”
From a Maltese perspective, our history with blasphemy dates back to the years of the Inquisition, which began in 1561 and ended with Napoleon’s arrival in 1798. It was the time when individuals could be accused of a wide array of crimes related to heresy, including sorcery, blasphemy and witchcraft, as well for censorship of printed literature.
Whilst censorship against blasphemy continued beyond this period, it was only in 1933 that comprehensive legislation regarding the vilification of religion (more specifically Roman Catholicism) was introduced. This was further enforced with obscenity laws that were introduced under a Labour government in 1975. This outlawed articles that “unduly emphasized sex, crime, horror, cruelty and violence”. These laws were used notably in 2011’s obscenity trial against Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri, during which Attorney General Dr Peter Grech exclaimed that “God is above everything and everybody”. These legislations were only revoked this summer, in July.
The Freedom of Expression (particularly in the context of religion) has been entrenched within our Constitution and the Constitution of other countries, and it has long been taken for granted. But freedom of expression is not a right that everyone enjoys, or endorses.
Salaman Rushdie’s publication The Satanic Verses resulted in fatwa (death warrant) from Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; and in 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ experienced enormous backlash by Catholic groups in France, more specifically Evangelical Christians. An overwhelming amount of activists had committed violent acts against establishments showing the movie, attacking them with tear gas, bomb threats and arson, wounding 14 people.
Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ) has always been embroiled in controversy since its exhibition in 1987, with its most recent bout with Christian groups being in 2012. Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and he lost grants due to the controversy. Others alleged that the government funding of Piss Christ violated separation of Church and state. Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Catholic nun, stated in a television interview with Bill Moyers that she regarded the work as not blasphemous but a statement on “what we have done to Christ”.
A sailing boat was cut off its mooring in Salina Bay and pushed by the rough seas on to the rocks.