Freedom of Expression

Denmark revives its blasphemy laws

In a worrying move, a Danish man has been charged with blasphemy after burning a copy of the Qur’an and posting a video on Facebook. The last conviction for blasphemy was in 1946, the last charge in 1971.  Here it is suggested that the decision to bring the charge might have been motivated by a wish to fend off terrorist attacks.  Another (unintended) consequence will probably be to strengthen voices further to the right.  The accused’s lawyer makes a telling point:

Mr. Paludan also noted that in 1997, a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on a news show by a state broadcaster but was not charged. “Considering that it is legal to burn a Bible in Denmark, I’m surprised then that it would be guilty to burn the Quran,” he said in a phone interview.

Whereas many civil liberties and secular organisations have strongly condemned this move, the Social Democrat spokeswoman expressed her approval.

But Trine Bramsen, a member of Parliament and a spokeswoman of the Social Democrats, an opposition party, defended the blasphemy law. “I struggle to see how that we’ll achieve a stronger society, or how we’ll enrich the public debate, if the burning of holy books was permitted,” she told Ritzau,

Freedom of speech doesn’t just exist for discourse or actions which might enrich the public debate or achieve a stronger society. As the New York Times points out, it is quite legal to burn the national flag in Denmark, another unedifying act which might offend viewers. Andrew Copson gets it right here:

“The accused in this case is not a sympathetic figure and his actions may have be borne of bigotry. But the prosecutors here are spreading the toxic notion that governments should criminalize sacrilege, and should decide that some symbolic acts against religion as such should be suppressed and punishable. This is a regressive, outrageous violation of free expression.

“The answer to anti-Muslim bigotry, when that is what is going on, is education and understanding and dialogue. The answer is emphatically not to resurrect the state policing of religious acts and language.”