The Be­gin­ners’ Guide to Blas­phemy Day

Malta Independent - - NEWS - Ju­lian Bon­nici

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”.

Photo: Jonathan Borg

A sail­ing boat was cut off its moor­ing in Salina Bay and pushed by the rough seas on to the rocks.

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