Dutch ready to revoke blasphemy law

While some countries convict people for blasphemy and tighten laws concerning insulting religions, the Netherlands aims to strike blasphemy from the books. But the Dutch are going to make one royal exception.

Blasphemy has been illegal in the Netherlands since 1932. But it's been decades since the statue has seen the light of a courtroom - the last time anyone was convicted of "offensive blasphemy" was in 1968.

Now, the Dutch government would like to remove the law entirely. The Dutch parliament in The Hague has suggested abolishing section 147, under which blasphemy becomes a punishable offense. Any insults lobbed at the Dutch Queen Beatrix, however, shall continue to be a punishable offense.

Interior view of the meeting room of the Dutch senate (eerste kamer) in The Hague, the Netherlands Photo: ANP XTRA LEX VAN LIESHOUT A new parliament appears ready to scrap the blasphemy law

The desire to remove section 147 has been brewing for years, said Markus Wilp, a political analyst at the Center for Dutch Studies at the University of Münster. Yet through an unusual political constellation, Prime Minister Mark Rutte had been kept from turning the plan into law. Until April of this year Rutte had to take into consideration the desires of the Reformed Political Party (SGP), an association of orthodox Protestants, which had been present in the Dutch parliament for quite some time but had never received more than three seats.

But after the parliament was reassembled in November, Rutte is no longer dependent on the SGP's support and can work on eliminating the blasphemy law.

Withstanding extremes

The Dutch government's decision can only be understood within the context of freedom of opinion within the Netherlands, according to Wilp.

"There are very few taboos here," he said. "That also means that politicians like the right-wing Geert Wilders can attack religion much more aggressively than they could in Germany."

In the past Wilders painted Islam as a violent and aggressive political ideology. The comments stirred up enough controversy to raise the question of whether such disparaging words constituted a punishable offense, Wilp said.

More recently, currents have been pulling in the other direction. Freedom of opinion - even those as extreme as Wilp's - must be tolerated.

"The view has been that there is nothing stronger than the force of the argument," Wilp sia.d "And it's against that background that such changes are being discussed."

God doesn't need the state's defense

In Germany the blasphemy law was reformed in 1969 - and since then has rarely been utilized. Paragraph 166 of the German penal code touches only peripherally on blasphemy, concentrating instead on the slandering of other religions or worldviews and making such comments crimes only "when the public peace is threatened."

Such a limited application is appropriate for modern times, according to Hartmut Kress, a professor of social ethics at the University of Bonn.

"In the 20th and 21st centuries one can no longer say that the name or concept of god is a 'good' requiring the protection of the state," he said. "That was the view of antiquity or the medieval period."

The current law is also consistent with the German republic's secular and ideologically neutral constitution. The idea is to prevent religious polemic that leads to violence, Kress said. "It's basically the same idea as sedition, which is also punishable by law, and that's appropriate," he added.

Other countries, tougher customs

For a long time, Britain's law on blasphemy only covered insults against a Christian God. The law was finally struck from the books just a few years ago.

While most European countries have taken a tolerant approach toward blasphemy and the insulting of religions, Ireland toughened its blasphemy law in 2009. Since then, the publication of blasphemous materials is a crime punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($32,700).

Often, political and social conflicts within a country are veiled within accusations of blasphemy. In Russia, charges of blasphemy were used against the band Pussy Riot. Three women were convicted in August as a result of their protests against President Vladimir Putin through a "punk prayer" they sang in a Moscow church. In a conviction that caused international outrage, two of the band members were sent to prison camp.

A current case of blasphemy has also affected the Turkish star pianist and composer Fazil Say. At the moment, Turkish judicial authorities are carrying out a trial due to Say's having allegedly insulted Islam. Via Twitter, Say disseminated several derisive remarks that criticized Islamic bigotry and hypocrisy.

In many countries, long sentences are commonly handed out due to blasphemy, while others punished the act with the death penalty. Last Wednesday (November 28, 2012) a blasphemy judgment was handed down in Egypt.

Seven Christian emigrants were sentenced to death in absentia because of the film "The Innocence of the Muslims," a controversial film that played a role in protests in several countries with large Muslim populations. The native Egyptians currently reside in the United States and Australia.