BBC Asks “What Is The Right Punishment For Blasphemy?”


Earlier this week it was reported that Facebook were sending a team to Pakistan to discuss the concerns of Pakistani officials regarding ‘blasphemous’ content on the social media platform. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has previously described ‘blasphemy’ as an “unpardonable offence”.

The fact that Facebook is even entertaining this sort of thing deserves no small amount of opprobrium, but it should come as a surprise to no-one that Pakistan would be heavily engaged in this area.

What should inspire open mouths and comedy double takes however is the question posed by Shazia Awan on the BBC’s Asian Network in response to this story:

There are a million useful and ethical questions one could choose to ask here – and this is not one of them. Instead, Awan thinks the best use of her time (and licence fee payers’ money) is to pay lip service to theocracy.

To hold a conversation on the ‘right’ punishment for blasphemy in 2017 Britain (or anywhere for that matter) is utterly obscene. The mere acknowledgement that such an act may merit any sort of punishment, however small, is to provide shade for the Pakistani theocrats who feel no compunction in gunning down ‘blasphemers’, or putting them on death row.

Imagine if you will that a major broadcaster asked ‘what is the right punishment for pre-marital sex?’ or perhaps ‘should a woman be made to marry the man who raped her?’.

This is the sort of zone we’re in here. And it’s of the twilight variety.

Needless to say, the question inspired an avalanche of online dissent, to which BBC Asian Network responded:image

I’m not sure clarity was the issue here, but rather a complete inability to grasp free expression, human rights and consult a calendar.

So, allow me to be ‘clear’. I am free to say whatever I like about someone’s religion or ‘god’. I claim that right for myself and all others, and do so without apology. The hurt feelings of the faithful is the tiny price we pay for the understanding that no belief is exempt from scrutiny and that no ultimate authority may be hoisted upon us in the market place of ideas.

This simple understanding has been the foundation of human progress and enlightenment in all the ways that matter – for centuries. Not so much as an inch should be offered to those who seek to dial the clock back in this regard.

There is no idea I hold with sufficient insecurity that I would seek to punish those who criticise it. The very fact that religion is so utterly resistant to dissent and debate speaks volumes about the veracity of its contents.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.


  • It is sad that the question is relevant, but I don’t think that makes the question invalid. I am just as curious what people in Pakistan think about punishment for blasphemy, as I am in what Americans think the punishment for not reciting the pledge of allegiance. IE, it is good to keep tabs on the level of insanity present in the general populations.

  • Excellent article, and couldn’t agree more.
    Unfortunately we do have to worry about this creeping upon us here in the west, as was demonstrated by the British Olympian last summer.

    I started training at a new job last month.
    Part of the training was safeguarding and discussing different types of abuse.

    The manager couldn’t grasp my argument that racial and religious abuse were two very different things, and neither could the other 17 people I was being trained with. Astonishing.

    • In recent months, I’ve seen and heard quite a number of “experienced” skeptics/humanists/liberal activists stumble over concepts such as free speech, hate speech, racism, fascism, etc. Or, as I suspect, they have thrown away their knowledge in order to push their own agendas.

      I am not at all surprised that members of the general public don’t understand the difference. The vast majority of the media don’t understand these concepts, either.

  • Sent this to

    Today, a programme on BBC Radio hosted by Shazia Awan asked the question “What is the right punishment for blasphemy?”. This disgusting, irresponsible question was followed up by posts on Twitter and Facebook – is no “right” punishment for blasphemy – it is not a crime in this country, and in countries where it is it is used to persecute religious minorities and political activists. Given the case of Asad Shah who was murdered in Glasgow for “blaspheming” by another Muslim, any implication that criticising religion is blasphemous and requires punishment literally puts lives in danger. Can the BBC, the Asian Network and the host of this programme explain what it is doing aligning itself with such backward points of view, even by implication?

    At best this is a clumsy, but still nevertheless dangerous, way of wording a question. At worst it endorses a fundamentalist religious point of view that any criticism of said religion should be punishable. This is not what I expect the BBC to be doing.

    Please reassure me that such questions will not be posed again on any of your programmes, online or on radio. We live in a democracy. Religious and non-religious people have a right to believe what they want, mock what they want and criticise what they want without a BBC host asking about the “right” way to punish them for their opinion.

  • Islam blasphemes against Christianity every time anyone reads specific sections of the Qur’an out loud…. and vice-versa with the Bible. Ditto for pretty much every other possible pairing of religions. Blasphemy Laws are completely incompatible with any form of government other than theocracy.

  • Great piece, thanks.

    The first few pages of replies in Twitter show that only one person took the question seriously. Barely literate @1Asi786 was also the only one invited on air.

    Pretty good evidence they asked the question they intended to.

  • The tweet was poorly worded, for sure, but I was disappointed some of the callers were not challenged more. There was one guy on who was saying how gutted (I’m paraphrasing) he was that Salman Rushdie hadn’t been killed yet, and that he still supports the fatwa. It was almost as if he woke up in pain every morning, because Rushdie still breathed!

    I’m sure if a white supremacist (a proper one, and not just somebody who Dan Arel or PZ Myers disagree with) phoned Nicky Campbell’s phone-in, with similar views, the presenter would make it clear their view was extreme.

  • Blasphemy is a coward’s/bully’s method of defending their lies because they have no proof but the sword, this sword of blasphemy.

  • I wonder about the comment “The very fact that religion is so utterly resistant to dissent and debate speaks volumes about the veracity of its contents”. It seems a biased view and paints all religions with the same brush. Personally I classify myself as an agnostic in the sense of the proper definition ( I chose to believe in a God and the message of Christianity. I’m quite happy discussing and considering other viewpoints. Also my experience of other Christians I associate with is that they certainly have more open-mindedness than the quote seems to imply.

What do you think? Leave some comments!