A modern blasphemy law: Denmark may criminalize burning holy books in public spaces
Freedom of expression is meaningless if harmless forms of it are punished
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Denmark is considering a law that would make it a crime to desecrate holy books in public, a decision that would violate the principles of free speech in order to coddle religious zealots.
It comes in response to a series of protests and deliberate provocations in countries (including neighboring Sweden) that have smaller Muslim populations, but the outrage in Muslim-majority countries has had tangible consequences, including terroristic threats that threaten Sweden’s entry into NATO.
After a small group of Danish nationalists filmed themselves burning what they said was a Quran late last month, hundreds of Iraqi protesters tried to storm Denmark’s embassy in Baghdad before security forces dispersed them. On Sunday, the Iranian authorities summoned Danish and Swedish diplomats to chastise them over another series of desecrations in both countries.
Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told reporters that there had been more than 170 demonstrations, including some with Quran burnings, in front of the embassies of Muslim-majority countries and elsewhere in Denmark over the past month. The protests, which are generally small, often denounce Islam and Muslim immigration.
Now Denmark is seeing pressure to take action in some meaningful way in order to avoid further “diplomatic fallout.”
On Friday, Denmark proposed its version of a modern blasphemy law. Anyone found guilt of burning a holy book in a public space could be fined or sentenced for up to two years in prison (depending on how often they do it).
Peter Hummelgaard, the justice minister, explained that the proposed law is intended to be written into the same regulation that currently bans the desecration of other countries’ flags.
The Danish law would prohibit the “improper treatment of objects of significant religious significance to a religious community”, he said.
He added that the protests were “senseless taunts that have no other purpose than to create discord and hatred.”
That may have been true for many of the recent protests. But it’s not like that’s the only reason people may want to burn holy books. And yet those people would be swept under the same rug. The new law could punish well-intentioned free speech proponents as much as anti-Islamic protesters. (By the way, punishing the desecration of other countries’ flags is also a bad idea for the same reasons; there’s no nuance permitted in the law based on intent.)
Another high-ranking politician offered this defense of the proposed law:
"It is a cornerstone of our democracy that you have the right to express yourself," said Deputy Prime Minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen. "You also have to behave properly."
No, you do not.
Behavior is in the eye of the beholder. (There’s a reason the phrase “good trouble” has entered the vernacular.) Free expression means nothing if certain forms of free expression (that are non-violent and symbolic and don’t put anyone in direct danger) are forbidden.
Anyone who, publicly or with the intention of spreading it in a wider circle, is guilty of improper treatment of an object with significant religious significance for a religious community or an object that appears as such, is punished with a fine or imprisonment for up to 2 years.
In theory, that means publicly burning a blank book with no writing inside, while merely saying it’s the Bible or Qur’an, could also land you in prison if you do it repeatedly.
Burning an actual hijab or Sikh turban, however, would be fine because the law doesn’t apply to clothing.
What about burning the Qur’an during a Denmark-based YouTube livestream in front of a viewing audience of a dozen people? That’s not exactly public, but anything online could go viral. (Jyllands-Posten, the publication that famously printed cartoons of Muhammad, said in response to this draft law that even “a closed profile can have so many followers” that such a livestream could be declared illegal.)
If the law passes, it could go into effect by the end of the year. (Sweden says it has no plans to change its law, at least partly because it would be a more laborious process.)
All of this is a shock coming from a country that repealed its 334-year-old blasphemy law in 2017.
So why go backwards now?
The politicians supporting the proposed law argue that it’s not quite as extreme as critics are making it out to be. It wouldn’t apply to written or oral criticisms of faith, including things like the Muhammad cartoons. But to ban holy book burnings, even if you can appreciate the sentiment behind it, gives those texts a special status they don’t deserve. If a law carves out a special exemption for certain religions, where does it stop? Why not go after deliberately provocative cartoons? And why don’t the rules apply to other beliefs and other books that are revered by large groups?
In June, when a Swedish refugee stood outside the Stockholm Central Mosque with a copy of the Qur’an, tore it up, placed a strip of bacon next to it, and set it on fire, political leaders had the right pragmatic idea in their responses. They said desecrating a holy book was not a crime, but it also wasn’t a good idea. Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said very bluntly, “It’s legal but not appropriate.” A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department echoed those thoughts, saying, “The burning of religious texts is disrespectful and hurtful, and what might be legal is certainly not necessarily appropriate.”
That’s the right path forward: Condemn the acts because the end goal isn’t worth the animosity it’ll generate, but don’t criminalize the acts because they hurt certain group’s feelings. Defending freedom of expression, especially unpopular forms, is a valuable endeavor even in the face of religious believers who don’t want to see their holy books in flames. But religious beliefs are meant to apply only to the believers; no one else should be obligated to take them seriously.
By suggesting this law, Denmark is sending the misguided message that certain religious texts are above the law. Sure, you can burn secular books that hold significant meaning to many, but the sacred books of the most popular religions get special privilege.
It would be far more powerful for Denmark to say religious books cannot and should not receive special treatment, while making an appeal to everyone’s better angels to consider the impact such acts may have on peaceful believers.
What’s going to happen if this law passes and more people burn holy books as a show of solidarity with free speech activists (and not specifically to inflame religious zealots)? Will Denmark seriously prosecute them all? Will they really imprison people for criminal acts that have no actual victims? If Denmark is worried about its reputation right now, there’s a very real risk that it could become known as a place where free expression is punishable depending on who gets offended.
The only people who deserve to be punished over a book-burning—regardless of the books—are the people who commit crimes in retaliation. Not the people who decide, for whatever reason, to torch the Qur’an, an act that is literally harmless.
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