Denmark Applies Blasphemy Law for the First Time in 46 Years

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An unidentified Danish man has been charged with blasphemy over a year after he burned a copy of the Quran in his backyard and posted a video of the act in the anti-Islamic Facebook group, “YES TO FREEDOM – NO TO ISLAM” on December 27th of 2015. Denmark’s blasphemy law makes it illegal to “mock legal religions and faiths in Denmark,” according to ICE News. This law seeks to give redress to those who feel that their religion has been insulted. If he is convicted when the case comes before the court in June, the defendant will likely face a hefty fine.

This is only the fourth time anyone has been charged with blasphemy since the law was passed in 1866. Of the three previous cases there have only been two convictions. In the first case, four people were sentenced to jail in 1938 for putting up anti-Semitic posters and distributing anti-Semitic leaflets. In 1946, two people were fined for dressing up like priests and acting out a mock baptism with a doll at a masked ball. Finally, in 1971, two Danish Radio producers aired a song mocking Christianity. These producers were eventually acquitted.

In most Western countries, blasphemy laws have either been repealed or are dead letter law. While Denmark’s blasphemy law is technically still in place it had not been previously applied since 1971 and was, until recently, viewed as inoperable.

In addition to the three previous cases where individuals were all prosecuted for blasphemy, prosecutors in 2005 halted an investigation into Jyllands-Posten, a Danish daily newspaper, after there was widespread protest following the publication of an article titled “The Face of Muhammed” containing 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed allegedly considered offensive.

While most recall the cartoon controversy few realize that, much like the most recent Quran burning controversy, the cartoons had engendered minimal response from the Danish Muslim community until three Danish Muslim leaders undertook a campaign of unsubstantiated accusations intended to rile up anti-Danish sentiment throughout the Muslim world. The resulting riots killed several hundred people.

In response to violent Islamic reactions to ridicule, the EU mandated religious hate-speech laws in 2008, shifting from the previously used blasphemy laws. According to an official European commission, the measure was meant to “’preserve social peace and public order’ in light of the ‘increasing sensitivities’ of ‘certain individuals’ who ‘have reacted violently to criticism of their religion.’”

Yet, according to Nina Shea, “These hate-speech laws have failed in both aims.” She writes for the National Review, “Islamist extremism continues to grow in Europe, while speech critical of Islam is undertaken at ever greater personal risk, including risk of criminal prosecution. Some are so intimidated that they remain silent even when it is their duty to speak up.”

Initially, the defendant was charged with hate speech. The indictment was only later changed to blasphemy. There is one significant difference between hate speech and the Danish blasphemy law. The defendant did not directly insult Muslims as a people, as a hate speech indictment would require. Instead, he publicly insulted the core Muslim belief in the sanctity of the Quran.

In the past, the blasphemy law has been applied in cases where there was a violent response to the public blaspheming of a specific faith, a questionable policy in itself.  But, in this most recent case, the video that the defendant posted has not received widespread public recognition or outrage. The original post is still up on the Facebook group, “JA TIL FRIHED – NEJ TIL ISLAM,” – “YES TO FREEDOM – NO TO ISLAM” – and yet it only has 420 shares, 78 comments, and approximately 200 likes in a public Facebook group with 2,240 members.

This video never went viral, it was never responded to with public outrage, and the unnamed defendant has not reported receiving any threats of death or violence. So, why did the Danish authorities decide to prosecute this particular case?

This case is not about religion. Denmark is one of the least religious countries in the world. While Denmark does have a state church, religious belief and observance is low. Less than one third of all Danes claim to believe in God and only about 2% even attend church each Sunday. And yet, according to a recent survey conducted by CEPOS, a Danish think tank, 66% of Danish voters support the country’s blasphemy law, leaving only one third of Danes seeking the law’s repeal.

Instead, this case is about fear. European officials have become increasingly afraid of the growing Muslim population. With already tense relationships between the immigrant Muslim and native Danish populations, Danish authorities are afraid of the societal impact of a Quran burning. They fear that this event could spark terrorist attacks in Denmark.

In response to these threats incited by offensive images or speech, Europe has typically taken one of two options: they can either end Muslim extremism within their borders, or, they can curb any insulting rhetoric or actions by Europeans. As a general rule, Europe has responded to the threat of violence by taking the latter, passive approach, even curbing serious critique of Islam. In the European mind, charging the Quran burner both curbs ridicule and appeases the growing Muslim population within Danish borders. Unfortunately, this response does not guarantee any long-term solutions.

However, this is a fear of one specific group, not a fear of a response to the burning of holy books in general. There have been two significant examples of public Bible burnings in the last forty years, both of which received public attention and neither of which resulted in a prosecution.

In 1977, the Danish evening news showed a Danish artist burning a copy of the Bible while speaking about his upcoming art exhibition. The prosecutor started blasphemy charges but dropped the case three months later because the artist claimed that it was simply a symbolic act to spark debate about Christianity. Later, in 2006, a Norwegian comedian also burned a Bible in a Christian-dominated town. He was asked to repeat the actions but with a Quran instead of a Bible. He refused, saying that he wanted to live longer than another week.

It seems that the driving force behind the renewed application of this dead letter law is fear, not the protection of free speech or religion. While many Europeans claim to support freedom of speech, they really only support speech that they already agree with. Europeans are eager to have their governments shut down anyone they do not agree with and firmly believe that there is no right to religious insult.

A PEW Research Center poll in 2015 found that 49% of Europeans support censorship of speech that offends minorities. This is likely, in light of rampant accusation of “Islamaphobia” in European countries, because they believe that banning offensive speech will protect them from those who the speech could offended. Unfortunately, censorship provides no long-term protection from those who it may offend.

The root of this law is a fear of the potential consequences insulting speech. In order to avoid the dangerous consequences of free speech, such as the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January of 2015, Denmark would rather preemptively prosecute a Quran burner than risk the consequences from an increasing Muslim population inside European borders.

Unfortunately, simply appeasing the Muslim population will not protect European society from violence or retaliation in response to “offensive” comments. Denmark, and the rest of Europe, has yet to set a clear bright line as to what is or is not blasphemy. Instead, the threat of violence or retaliation has become the determining factor in if the individuals involved will be prosecuted.

This continues to erode the definition of freedom of speech and expression and makes hate speech and blasphemy laws a moving target for Danes specifically and all Europeans generally. There is no clear standard as to if or when they will be prosecuted. This makes self-censorship the safest option for European citizens, likely the intended outcome.

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