RFE/RL – Which European countries still have blasphemy laws on the statute books?
David Nash – The most prominent is in Britain, but in a sense blasphemy laws exist in a number of other countries in disguise. Some of the laws against religious hatred actually function in this way. There was a case recently in France against Michel Houellebecq, who criticized Islam and he was challenged in court about this. But the most viable blasphemy law is still in the U.K., though I notice Greece tried to bring a case in the last 18 months. Much of the legal thinking is governed by decisions of the European Court. One of these in the 1990s was in Austria against the Otto Preminger Institute. What happened in that case was that the European [Court] decided that there were actually limits on freedom of speech very much different to the first amendment rights present in America.
RFE/RL – How did the laws develop over time?
David Nash – Ancient Greece had a law against blasphemy, but the Roman Emperor Tiberius said that if the gods wanted to exact revenge it was their own business, nothing to do with man. In the early modern period, you find that people who blaspheme are a public nuisance; there are innumerable cases in Germany, Holland, Italy and Switzerland of people being found drunk and blaspheming and finding themselves in court. Generally they suffer lowish-level punishments, things like being made to stand outside the church carrying a very heavy candle… When you get to the 18th century, you find a lot of blasphemy statues are passed across Europe… All these are intended to use government against these people as if they are politically dangerous. You get a period of the blasphemer being predominantly political. They might be a political dissident, a radical in the 18th century; they might be an anarchist at the start of the 20th century or a communist further into the 20th century. It’s only after the 1930s and 1940s that your blasphemer tends to be an artist of some kind.
RFE/RL – Do blasphemy laws in Europe tend to cover one religion only?
David Nash – What tended to happen is that blasphemy laws were created to protect the church established by law. In England that was the Church of England. There was a case in the 1830s that meant the law had decided the Catholic religion was not protected against blasphemy. But if you look in other countries, similarly the laws that arise see Christianity as the religion protected. When this changed, comparatively recently, it’s looked at in terms of incitement to religious hatred. They don’t tend to do anything to the blasphemy law but they would create a separate law to protect people’s ethnicity and identity, obviously because you can’t produce a subsequent law to protect someone else’s beliefs in opposition to a different religion’s beliefs. So it’s protecting someone’s identity rather than what they believe.
RFE/RL – Are prosecutions now generally not public, but brought by private individuals?
David Nash – What you tend to find is that most states are quite embarrassed about getting involved in any of this. There have been some incidents in Britain recently where the director of public prosecutions has refused to proceed, considering that prosecution is not in the public interest. The history of blasphemy since World War II has been individuals finding themselves aggrieved prepared to try and take this to court. One of the things is that this is a real quandary for most modern western states. On the one hand, they have to keep freedom of expression going and on the other they have to protect minorities against attacks, and this is quite a frightening balancing act for most western countries.
RFE/RL – The impression in the West is that there’s relatively little risk of falling foul of blasphemy laws these days. But there have been recent cases?
David Nash – The Nigel Wingrove case, this was an individual who produced a film [in 1989] called “Visions Of Ecstasy,” it was a quasi-soft porn film about the visions of St. Theresa of Avila, and these were quite an erotic response to the crucifixion. What happened was that this film went before the British Board of Film Classification and it was refused a certificate on the ground that it might be blasphemous — they couldn’t prove it was, it hadn’t been released — but they presumed it might be and as a result it was not allowed to be distributed. Wingrove saw his rights of freedom of expression abused so he took this to the European Court [in 1996], [but] the British government won the case.
© 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.