Dealing with ‘national threats’

Busuttil, who inherited a wounded party after the 2013 elections, knows he must reinvent an ideological identity that sets the PN apart from Joseph Muscat’s Labour.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil chose last Sunday’s mass meeting in Valletta to announce his party’s stance on the proposed decriminalisation of blasphemy laws. It is not perhaps the most critical issue facing the country at this time; yet that is precisely why the PN’s chosen position may have raised a few eyebrows.

Busuttil has indicated that he will argue against the proposal in the forthcoming parliamentary debate. That in itself is not surprising: not everyone in this country is comfortable with the removal of criminal sanctions against ’vilification of religion’. It would be futile to deny that a substantial part of the PN’s own grassroots would resolutely disagree. Even many Labour supporters are visibly unhappy about the idea.

It was in part to appease this faction (so to speak) that the PN had taken comparable stands in favour of state censorship in the past: most notably in the Stitching case. One can safely assume that many of the party diehards who attended Sunday’s mass meeting would expect no less than similar consistency over this issue, too.

Politically, the PN’s position is understandable also because, with both parties broadly in agreement on most major policy areas, the actual differences between them have now grown thin on the ground. Busuttil, who inherited a wounded party after the 2013 elections, knows he must reinvent an ideological identity that sets the PN apart from Joseph Muscat’s Labour.

Among the last remaining battlefields where parties can still pitch their tents on opposite sides is the ‘liberal/progressive’ versus ‘conservative’ axis. Busuttil himself hinted as much last Sunday:  “Because of Joseph Muscat’s need to appear liberal and progressive, the government is taking changes to the extreme,” he said. 

And this is where he may have surprised even those who agree with his position, albeit for different reasons.

It is in fact the arguments he provided, and not the position itself, that mark something of a novelty in the PN leader’s approach to ‘liberal’ issues. According to Simon Busuttil, decriminalisation is wrong because it might “pose a serious threat to public order”.

“Everyone knows what’s happening around us and what happens when religions are taken to the extreme. What worries me is that Muscat’s stance will create a national threat. What happens if someone hot-headed decides to take matters in his own hands?”

This marks a clean departure from all other positions taken up publicly to date – including those of Archbishop Charles Scicluna – which had previously all argued that ‘vilification of religion’ should be criminalised because ‘religious sentiment’, as a value in itself, was something worthy of State protection.

Busuttil’s argument takes matters onto a different level, by arguing that ‘vilification of religion’ should remain a criminal offence because the consequences of decriminalisation might be severe; that is, the lack of the deterrent only makes such consequences even more of a reality. Whether one agrees with his point or not – and there is plenty of room for discussion – there is certainly an underlying reality to this argument that is also futile to deny. 

Malta has to date been spared the sort of violent repercussions of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ variety… but with social demographics changing, and the world around us in turmoil, there is no telling what realities we may face in future. 

This frames the entire debate in a very different perspective. On paper, we may still be discussing legislation drawn up in 1937 to protect primarily ‘the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith’: but all parties – PN included – agree that the law should be revised to level the playing field for all religions equally.

The experience of other countries suggests that this is a matter not to be taken lightly. In most of the Arab world, vilification of Islam is a crime, often punishable by death. Retaliatory attacks occur, as we saw with Charlie Hebdo and the global reactions to the Danish Mohammed cartoons. 

So while it may not have been his primary intention, Busuttil has in a sense forced us to broaden the discussion far beyond the confines of the local Church parvis, to where it had previously been restricted. This in itself is not a bad thing. It marks an attempt to reflect real international situations (in this case, rising terrorism threat levels as the Mediterranean security situation worsens) in local policy discussions. 

Naturally, however, this does not mean one must necessarily subscribe to Busuttil’s core argument itself: which may in fact be problematic. For one thing, it is debatable whether the existence of a criminal deterrent would in any way impact the level of retaliatory crimes this law was designed to prevent. 

Past experience suggests that the old laws did not prevent many people from blaspheming: in 2011, over 100 people were charged with this offence, despite the threat of a six-month prison term. There is no evidence that retaliatory crimes would in any way be averted, by a legal proviso everyone has traditionally all along disregarded anyway.

Moreover, minorities (including religious minorities) are already protected from hate crime and incitement to violence. This will not change with the decriminalisation of religious vilification.

All the same, security concerns do exist: and they are certainly worth bringing up in a discussion about state censorship and its many ramifications. 

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