LIGHTNING failed to strike Terry Sanderson when he said rude things about Jehovah, rubbished his bastard son Jesus, and maligned the mad paedophile ‘prophet’ Mohammed.
Sir Ian McKellen, who “survived an evangelical upbringing” did not turn to dust when he confessed to vandalising Bibles in hotel bedrooms by tearing out the pages of Leviticus.
And comedian Robin Ince attracted no divine retribution, only hysterical laughter when he punched holes in nonsensical Christian beliefs, and held pillocks like Christian Voice’s Stephen Green up to ridicule.
And the venue in which a large contingent of atheists – both novices and fiery veterans still yearning to rid the world of superstition and religious privilege – gathered to say good riddance to Britain’s disgraceful blasphemy laws was not reduced to rubble by a terrible quake.
Heaven, it would seem, had run out of thunderbolts and pestilence and plagues. Not even a locust was to be seen.
The long-awaited event – the culmination of efforts spanning well over a century by the National Secular Society, the Freethinker, and other secular bodies to rid Britain of this senseless “crime” – took place in a spacious Spanish restaurant off the Tottenham Court Road. (The food was great!)
In a compelling – and frequently hilarious – audio-visual presentation, NSS President, Terry Sanderson, and Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood – (pictured above, right, with Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury) – took the audience through the history of blasphemy in the UK, and paid glowing tribute to the many brave parliamentarians who made the final push at the beginning of the year to have the law removed forever.
The Law Commission had, in fact, recommended blasphemy’s abolition over 20 years ago, but despite frequent debates ever since, it was not until March 2008 that it was finally swept away.
Two of the society’s closest allies in the fight for blasphemy’s removal were Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris, Lord Avebury – both of whom were warmly applauded for their efforts when they appeared on stage to describe their respective roles in the epic battle.
The last victim of this egregious law was Denis Lemon, editor of Gay News, who was convicted of blasphemous libel on July 11, 1977, as a result of a private prosecution by the nation’s self-appointed nanny, that grim Christian busybody Mary Whitehouse.
If this awful woman wasn’t already dead, yesterday’s event would probably have hastened her demise.
Lemon found himself in the dock for publishing a poem called The Love That Dares to Speak its Name, published in full here.
Prosecuting in what was Britain’s first blasphemy case in 50 years, counsel John Smyth told the court: “It may be said that this is a love poem – it is not, it is a poem about buggery.”
Lemon, alas, is no longer with us; he died in 1994 – but new life was breathed into James Kirkup’s poem when leading British actor Sir Ian McKellen read it to those at yesterday’s gathering.
It is by no stretch of the imagination a good poem, but this great Shakespearian actor lifted it brilliantly from mediocrity.
Among secularist veterans present at the event was Bill McIlroy, 80 on July 4, a former editor of the Freethinker, who formed the Committee Against Blasphemy following Lemon’s conviction.
In defiance of trial judge Alan King-Hamilton, who ordered that the poem should never again see the light of day again, McIlroy sent it by post it all over the land.
He wanted to be charged with blasphemy, in the hope of putting blasphemy itself on trial, but instead was convicted of distributing “obscene” material.
McIlroy received an ovation for his campaigning efforts on this and many other fronts, and a second veteran campaigner, Barbara Smoker, 85, past President of the NSS, was also enthusiastically cheered – in particular for the her vigorous defence of Salman Rushdie, whose book, The Satanic Verses, led to Muslims in 1989 to call for his death. In fact, they still are calling for his murder.
Smoker, the audience, was told, had accurately predicted that Muslim protests over the book, and the government’s failure to prosecute those who were inciting Rushdie’s murder, would lead to further attacks by the Islamic world on free speech.
Another victim of the blasphemy law was film director Nigel Wingrove, whose 19-minute-long Visions of Ecstacy was refused a UK certificate by the British Board of Film Classification on the grounds of possible blasphemous libel.
After an appeal failed, the distributor took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1996 to consider whether the existence of a law of blasphemy was consistent with Freedom of Expression rights. The original BBFC decision was upheld and, to date, this remains the only film banned in the UK on the grounds of blasphemy.
However, Wingrove, also present at yesterday’s celebration, has been invited by Craig Lapper, of the board’s examining body, to resubmit the film for classification, because the board is no longer hamstrung by this stupid law.
Also at the celebration was Stewart Lee, who, with Richard Thomas, co-wrote the award-winning Jerry Springer: the Opera – a show which was dogged by Christian Voice supporters led by Stephen Green. He rose to his feet to thank the NSS for having defended the show throughout its run.
When JSTO was shown on BBC TV, Green attempted to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the corporation, but to his intense anger, the rug was pulled from under his feet when blasphemy was abolished.
The long-overdue Bye-Bye Blasphemy party was an uplifting occasion – but the joy of blasphemy’s departure, the audience was told, cannot be shared in a great many other countries, where the “crime” still exists, and carries the death sentence and other harsh penalties.
Terry Sanderson pointed out that, on the eve of the party, “we received news that a man has been sentenced to death in Pakistan for passing derogatory remarks about the prophet and defiling pages of the Koran.”
Shafeeq Latif, a Muslim in his early 20s, was arrested in 2006 in a village near the eastern city of Sialkot. Latif appeared in the court amidst tight security. Previous victims of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been lynched or killed by prison guards before their appeals could be heard by higher courts.
At least 25 persons have been killed arbitrarily after being accused of blasphemy, and 892 were accused from 1986 to 2007. While the majority of victims of blasphemy laws were Muslims, houses and places of worship of minorities were destroyed under the allegations, and seven Christians were murdered.
Blasphemy is dead in Britain. It’s now time to abolish the “crime” wherever else it exists.