Last week, Tunisia’s ruling Islamic party introduced a bill that would criminalize blasphemy in the country. If passed, anyone convicted could receive two to four years in prison.
Oh good. This is going to turn out well for everyone.
According to Agence France-Presse, the bill actually lists subjects sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This list includes God, the Prophet Mohammed, and holy books. Because, you know, those three are the only religions that matter.
Lest you think that this bill would only be used in matters of hate speech, consider this: in May, the head of Nessma television, a private TV station in Tunisia, was fined for showing “Persepolis” because the film offends Islam by depicting God.
Blasphemy laws are incredibly disconcerting. These laws privilege one type of belief over others. Why should someone be free to criticize another person’s use of snake oil to cure cancer — a practice not based in fact — but not allowed to criticize religion, which is also not based in fact? It’s almost instinctive to put a religious belief over belief in anything else, but why? Who should decide what is out of bounds?
And that’s ultimately the problem with content-based speech restrictions. It’s hard to decide what to prohibit and what to allow. When you add something as sensitive as religion, you have a recipe for free speech on ice.
I’m not alone in my concern for this blasphemy bill. Human Rights Watch has also spoken out against it. According to the AFP:
“The draft bill would provide prison terms and fines for broadly worded offenses such as insulting or mocking the ‘sanctity of religion,’” the rights group said.
“If passed, this draft law would introduce a new form of censorship in a country that suffered from so much censorship under the ousted president” Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, HRW deputy regional director Eric Goldstein said.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t serious issues to consider when defining the parameters of free speech and freedom of expression, but any limitations need to be narrow and specific. It’s unclear when this bill will be debated, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail.
Image credit: whateverjames