Britain’s new blasphemy police?

Think tank: The Henry Jackson Society

Author(s): Charlotte Littlewood

July 19, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Henry Jackson Society looks at understanding Islamist anti-blasphemy action in the UK.

Blasphemy is the act of saying or doing something that disrespects God or religion. The common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in England and Wales by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. The Pew Research centre found that 79 countries and territories out of the 198 studied around the world (40%) had laws or policies in 2019 banning blasphemy. Blasphemy is punishable by death in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Somalia. Blasphemy within the Islamic context has a range of meanings. According to section 295 of Pakistan’s Blasphemy law, blasphemous acts can include the defacing of the Quran and criticism of the Prophet Muhammad. According to some interpretations of the Quran and hadith, depicting the Prophet Muhammad is blasphemous. Images of the Prophet Muhammad have been central to numerous violent anti-blasphemy acts, most tragic being the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo in 2015 which left 17 dead. Some schools of thought hold that it is blasphemous for someone who identifies themselves as Muslim to belong to a religious group that is perceived to have “deviant” interpretations of Islam, such as the Ahmadiyya. What may be understood as sectarianism to some is blasphemy to those who do not accept certain sects or practices as being within the fold of Islam. Under Pakistan’s Ordinance XX, it is a criminal offence for an Ahmadi to identify as Muslim. As a result of persecution abroad, persons and groups accused of blasphemy have sought asylum in the UK. However, violence and intimidation in the name of defending Islam is now resulting in blasphemy being unofficially regulated on the UK’s streets and in schools, cinemas and publishing houses. This has left some asylum seekers looking to leave the UK as it no longer feels safe for them here. This report seeks to contribute to a deeper understanding of extreme anti-blasphemy action in the UK and the potential problems pertaining to the responses.