Sunday, 1 October 2006

Danish Cartoon Controversy

In the midst of all the commentary and coverage of the Danish Cartoon Controversy a certain theme has, not unexpectedly, raised its head. I refer of course to the 'Clash of Civilisations' debate which is being offered up in some quarters as an explanation for the anger that has erupted.

According to this theory the Arab/Muslim world is in the grip of religious fervour and hence finds itself at odds with the 'western liberal secular tradition' or whatever adjectives you choose to insert. Western Europe (and by extension the Americas) is regarded as having societies where freedom of expression, as applied to public utterances and matters of conscience, is absolute and paramount to the democratic functioning of the state. The adverse consequences of this can only be addressed through vigorous public debate, right of criticism and vigilance.

This state of affairs is considered to have evolved out of centuries of struggle against the forces of blind (one might even say religious) obscurantism. From the Renaissance and Galileo through to the Reformation and the Enlightenment all these events have left their mark on our intellectual and cultural tradition. Fair enough, but do we here in the west really merit such a pat on the back?

If an outsider was to evaluate Irish society solely by reference to the fundamental law of the land, as laid down in our constitution, such a person might well come to some unflattering conclusions. In actual fact there is no such thing as an absolute right to freedom of conscience, or the free profession and practice of religion, according to Bunreacht na hÉireann because Article 44.2.1 makes these 'subject to public order and morality'. If Ireland was a mainly Muslim country, or even a country in which Islam constituted a significant minority (and who is to say this will not happen at some point in the future), a case could quite easily be brought under Irish law for the banning of offensive material such as the Danish cartoons. I should state here I haven't seen them but can only assume that they offend against 'public order and morality' for some at least.

Article 40.6.1(i) of Bunreacht na hÉireann even specifies that 'the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law'. The Irish Times in its edition of 4th February, 2006 is at pains to point out that "while the Constitution and the law in Ireland prohibit blasphemy, the only attempt to mount such a prosecution in the State's history ended in failure". This only begs the question as to why do we have these stupid laws on our statute books in the first case?

I would suggest the reason is that, invariably, laws are the last thing to change as a society and a people change. Legislators are constantly locked in a battle to keep up with changes in public perception.

In my view, if we really wish to address ourselves to our Muslim brothers and sisters from the standpoint of 21st century intellectual enlightenment, and not as just a bunch of condescending chauvinists, then we really should start to clear out the skeletons in our own cupboards. As Ireland moves into a new era of multi-culturalism (and one could raise the question here, when did we ever become mono-cultural?) there is a lot that a lot of us would like to leave behind.

11th February, 2006

A version of this post was published as a 'Letter to the Editor' in Village Magazine (Issue 73, 16-22 February 2006) and Irish Independent newspaper of February 21st, 2006.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2006

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