Protest in Yemen (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

How the Danes paid the Danegeld

We should resist the new blasphemy laws

We might have seen it coming. Laws criminalising blasphemy, once seen as an unwelcome and outdated survival from a past age, are now fashionable again.

Until a few years ago, such an idea was unthinkable outside a few fundamentalist countries and coteries. Religion, like any other institution, had by common consent to be open to attack. In a secular, if not post-religious polity, free speech demanded that any lingering laws shielding particular faiths from criticism or mocking be swept away. Things are changing, though. The latest episode in this sad saga comes from Denmark.

Danes are by and large a liberal and tolerant lot. Till now at least, they have been commendably sound on free speech: witness, for example, the scrupulous and principled steps the Danish state took to protect Flemming Rose, who commissioned the Mohammed cartoons for Jyllands Post in 2005. In the last year, however, things have become more difficult.

Following instances of misbehaviour by some Muslim migrants, a number of Danish citizens have made clear what they think of Islam by very publicly burning the Quran. The government has allowed it, as indeed it probably had to. In one case it prevented counter-demonstrators forcibly intervening to stop the burning.

The result has been some disorder at home, but more significantly uproar abroad. Danish diplomats in Islamic states, from Algeria to Iran and beyond, have been summoned to receive a dressing-down for their country’s failure to suppress unforgivable attacks on Islam. Danes in Muslim nations, and Danish commercial interests there, have felt threatened.

Faced with this, it was touch and go whether Copenhagen would choose principle or appeasement. Now we know. It has chosen the latter. A law banning the public burning of religious texts, including the Quran, the Torah and the Bible, to be precipitately introduced at the end of this week, seems likely to be in force by the new year.

This should worry anyone, for a number of reasons.

Copenhagen is open to requests to curb civil rights at home

It represents a significant shift of opinion on the part of the great and the good in Denmark, away from the idea of free speech. Things were very different only six years ago. In 2017, the Danish parliament voted 75–27 to abolish an archaic blasphemy law that for over 300 years had outlawed public mockery of the doctrines or worship of any religious community. The irony is doubled because the stimulus for that move was a libertarian outcry over an attempt to prosecute one John Salvesen under that law for … publicly burning the Quran. Unfortunately, such sentiments no longer seem to apply. True, the Danish justice minister disingenuously suggested that free speech was unaffected because burning religious texts was different from other forms of mockery in that it “served no other purpose than creating division and hatred.” That doesn’t hold water for a moment, as it is a pretty obvious fig-leaf.

It is one thing to curb free speech to preserve social peace at home — that is problematic and still probably wrong, but at least it’s understandable. This latest measure essentially cuts back on the right of Danes to speak their mind in Denmark because of reaction outside it, however. Although this has been partly dressed up as a security measure, it is still extremely disconcerting that a government should, to put it bluntly, allow people overseas to dictate what its own citizens are permitted to say or do back home. The message it sends — that Copenhagen is open to requests to curb civil rights at home if foreign governments in Cairo or Riyadh threaten commercial sanctions, or foreign fundamentalists in Tehran menace violence — is a very unfortunate one.

We live in a time when, at least when it collides with religious fundamentalism, free speech globally is under attack and needs all the support it can get. Many of the demands for a Quran-burning law in Denmark came from the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. This is a large bloc of some 40 countries, many of which have little commitment to free expression and no compunction in imposing pro-Islamic blasphemy provisions of one kind or another within their own borders.

Sweden makes no secret that it sympathises with the Danish position

Even in Europe, support for the idea that Danes should have the right to say what they damn well please about religion has been remarkably muted. Sweden, for instance, has faced a similar run of public desecrations of the Quran, with similar explosive reactions in the Islamic world. Admittedly, it needs to keep Islamic Turkey sweet until its NATO membership is done and dusted. Quite apart from that, its government makes no secret that it sympathises with the Danish position and would love to pass a similar ban — but for the frustrating fact that it would probably be unconstitutional under Swedish law. In Brussels the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has made a point of condemning Quran-burning, without saying anything in particular about the need to preserve the European tradition of free expression.

If anyone thinks that the European Convention on Human Rights may ride to the rescue here, they will be disappointed. Five years ago, the Strasbourg court was very happy to approve Austria’s criminalisation of a vituperative attack on Mohammed in a political seminar. Improper and abusive attacks on objects of religious veneration, it said, were not the kind of speech the Convention existed to protect. Even the United Nations has undergone a remarkable change. Fifteen years ago UN apparatchiks were principled on free speech and adamant that religions and belief systems should not receive any particular protection against offence. Last month it was a very different story. By 28 to 12, the UN Human Rights Council passed a motion calling in essence for suppression or criminalisation of attacks on the Quran, a development welcomed by one foreign minister as a call to “stop abusing freedom of expression”.

Britain, to its credit, voted against this unpleasant and authoritarian measure, along with the US and France. This is a hopeful sign, but the fight needs to be continued. Free speech on a global and regional level remains severely threatened. In the next few months, its defenders will need all the hope, and support, that they can get.

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