‘Bring back blasphemy laws, apply them equally to all faiths’ - Labour MP

The front page of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo. © Eric Gaillard
Blasphemy laws should be reintroduced in the UK providing they “apply equally to everybody,” Labour MP Keith Vaz told the audience at a Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) event – a day before the Paris attacks.

Speaking at the event on responses to terrorism and extremism, Vaz said he would be happy for a bill proposing a blasphemy law to be debated in parliament.

His remarks came during a debate on British media portrayal of Muslims, where the panel discussed the best ways to deal with “slurs” and “grossly irresponsible” coverage of Muslim issues.

Attendees suggested the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) should be given powers to pursue complaints of religious discrimination. Assistant Secretary General of the MCB Miqdaad Versi said there should be a debate about legislation to enshrine that need.

“Muslim communities need to be able to respond to accusations [against] Muslims, or against the Prophet, in a more effective way.”
“Whether there should be legislation is something that really is a more complicated question,” he added.

Speaking after the event to Al Arabiya, Vaz said he would have “no problem” with the reintroduction of blasphemy laws, provided the bill met certain criteria and was universally applied.

“Religions are very special to people, and therefore I have no objection to [a blasphemy law] … but it must apply equally to everybody,” he added.

“It should apply to all religions. If we have laws, they should apply to everybody.”

“If somebody brings it forward in parliament I'll vote for it … Obviously it depends what’s in the bill. But I have no objection to it being brought before parliament and having a debate about it,” he said.

Vaz’s remarks were criticized by the National Secular Society (NSS), which said religious ideas must be subject to “rigorous debate.”

NSS Directory Keith Porteous Wood said: “I am appalled that such a senior politician should be blithely contemplating the reintroduction of blasphemy laws. In any plural society, ideas, including religious ideas, should be open to rigorous debate. We already have an armory of laws restricting freedom of expression. Religiously aggravated insults already carry a seven-year tariff. This is already likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

“Reintroducing blasphemy laws would not be showing a good example to those Muslim countries where blasphemy laws carry the death sentence. Even being accused of blasphemy in Pakistan – sometimes a tactic of commercial or political rivals – can result in extra-judicial death,” he added.

Those in favor of blasphemy laws believe they could provide a peaceful channel of protest for those offended by religious satire or persecution, preventing violent, religiously motivated attacks.

Gross depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are believed to have led to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, in which Islamic extremists stormed the offices of the satirical magazine in Paris, killing cartoonists and editorial staff.

However, France has not sought to introduce blasphemy laws since the attack, instead defending freedom of expression.