5.4.6.1 Defamation of a Belief or All its Adherents

Divisive and abusive language can damage society, as in the examples quoted when discussing the Moral Dimension of freedom of speech (4.4.5.2).  Criticism of a belief, as distinct from criticising the behaviour of a person, can be made illegal – as in the blasphemy laws of many countries – but if this is heavy-handed it runs the risk of suppressing all criticism and making it difficult to openly discuss problems.  As explained for example in a BBC article, What are Pakistan’s blasphemy laws?:

“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say they have been used to persecute minority faiths and unfairly target minorities.”

It might also be argued that there is a difference between criticism and defamation, but defamation is very hard to prove.  Individual misdeeds can be cited in such a way as to imply that the group as a whole is at fault, despite the absurdity of such an implication: the existence of some Christian terrorists, such as those in Northern Ireland, does not imply that all Christians are terrorists (and the same applies to Islamic terrorism).  The Moral Dimension offers a less problematic mechanism of governance (4.4.6.5), but that depends on religious leaders speaking out – which doesn’t always happen – so it is not surprising that a society might choose to use the law to prohibit defamation of a religion.

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