MANY people did not pay a great deal attention to the referendum on the removal of the reference in the Constitution which says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is an offence punishable under law. In fact, some going to vote in the presidential election the weekend before last were surprised to be getting the referendum ballot paper as well, so little did people engage with the subject.
The referendum was passed easily with 64.85% of those who voted mandating the Oireachtas to change the controversial Defamation Act 2009 so that blasphemy is no longer a criminal offence. The decision was vindicated somewhat subsequently as we witnessed the fall-out over the acquittal of Pakistani woman Asia Bibi, a Christian lady who has spent the past eight years on death row awaiting execution for blasphemy.
Her ‘crime’ was, allegedly, disrespecting Islam by drinking out of a cup that Muslim women were using. Her conviction and extreme sentence divided opinion in Pakistan, her family had to go into hiding and people who sympathised with her plight were not tolerated.
The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, who visited Asia Bibi in jail was assassinated by his bodyguard, who received the death sentence for doing it, but was given an Islamic saint’s funeral by those who celebrated his crime. Soon afterwards, the country’s Minister for Minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also shot dead for seeking to reform the Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; Ms Bibi being the first female non-Muslim charged under them.
After her acquittal, there were calls to kill the three judges who handed down the verdict, even though they pointed out that a core principal of Islam is tolerance. While Pakistan may seem a world away from us here, the actions of religious extremists resonate across the world and are not usually for the best.