Denmark reinstates blasphemy law, criminalizing the burning of holy books
Freedom of expression is meaningless if harmless forms of it are punished
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Note: I published this post a few months ago, but because of a significant update, I’m reposting a modified version of it here.
Months after considering a law that would make it a crime to desecrate holy books in public, Denmark has officially violated the principles of free speech in order to coddle religious zealots.
On Thursday, the nation’s parliament passed a bill making it illegal to burn the Qur’an in public places… or in private places if you record it and post it online. (Even though the bill technically applies to other religious texts and other forms of supposed desecration, there’s no question what they’re really trying to stop.)
The bill, which prohibits “inappropriate treatment of writings with significant religious importance for a recognised religious community”, was passed with 94 votes in favour and 77 opposed in the 179-seat Folketing…
In practical terms, it will be forbidden to burn, tear or otherwise defile holy texts publicly or in videos intended to be disseminated widely.
Those who break the law risk a fine or up to two years in prison. Before it takes effect, Queen Margrethe needs to formally sign it. That is expected to happen this month.
So… a potential two-year prison sentence for destroying paper, even if you own it, if certain people take the words on those pages super-seriously. Utter lunacy.
In 2017, Denmark repealed its 334-year-old blasphemy law.
It took a mere seven years to bring it back.
The ban on burning holy books didn’t come out of nowhere, though. It happened after a series of protests and deliberate provocations in countries (including neighboring Sweden) that have smaller Muslim populations. In Denmark alone, there were nearly 500 book and flag burnings between July 21 and October 24. Those protests, including some in which holy books were burned, were an attempt to block immigration by Muslims and from Islamic countries.
The subsequent outrage in Muslim-majority countries had tangible consequences, including terroristic threats that nearly prevented Sweden’s entry into NATO.
That’s why this bill wasn’t really about opposing “free speech” or appeasing outside forces as much as it was a peace offering to prevent “diplomatic fallout.” But the end result is that an action that doesn’t, on the surface, hurt anybody, will soon be considered a crime.
Well-intentioned free speech activists will be swept under the same rug as anti-Islamic zealots who want to provoke Muslims. (And to state the obvious, burning a book even as an act of provocation isn’t in the same crime ballpark as those who commit violence in response.) Intent should count for something. It won’t under this new law.
When the bill was first proposed, one high-ranking politician offered this pathetic defense:
"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.
The bill also raises a lot of questions about how and when it would be applied.
What if someone burns a blank book with no writing inside, while merely saying it’s the Bible or Qur’an? (Does it actually have to be a “holy book”?)
What about burning the Qur’an during a YouTube livestream in front of a minuscule viewing audience? (Is that person really trying to disseminate the video widely?) Jyllands-Posten, the Denmark-based publication that famously printed cartoons of Muhammad, said in response to the draft law that even “a closed profile can have so many followers” that such a livestream could be declared illegal.
What if you burn the book in private but someone else records you doing it without your knowledge and disseminates it widely? Who would get in trouble then?
What if, in response to the law, there’s a mass burning of holy books as an act of free speech with no intention to disparage religious groups? Will the police go after everyone involved?
Ironically, burning an actual hijab or Sikh turban is legal because the law doesn’t apply to clothing. Just books. After the initial draft of the bill prohibited the destruction of all objects of significant religious importance, it was narrowed to focus on scripture specifically.
In Sweden, where there are similar concerns about holy book burnings, politicians aren’t going this far. They’re at least considering whether they should consider national security risks before punishing people for their actions.
So why is Denmark taking this massive step in the wrong direction?
The politicians supporting the bill 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?
It’s also worth mentioning that this law was passed by more centrist politicians while parties on the left and right opposed it for different reasons. Furthermore, those centrists may have been more concerned with their economic interests, fearing boycotts of their exports in Muslim-majority countries, than protecting the feelings of a religious minority.
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 what should have happened here: Politicians should feel free to condemn the acts because the end goal wasn’t worth the animosity it would generate. Instead, they’re criminalizing the acts because they hurt certain group’s feelings.
Defending freedom of expression, especially unpopular forms of it, is a valuable endeavor. That includes defending the right to free speech 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.
We can make the argument that burning a book accomplishes nothing—that it’s a lazy form of criticism usually offered by people who refuse to grapple with what’s written in those books—but banning the act is overreach.
By passing this bill, 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 have been 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.
Humanists UK issued a blistering statement against this new “blasphemy law”:
This new law is a considerable backwards step for Denmark in fulfilling its obligation to promote and protect the universal human rights of freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. These rights are mutually reinforcing as they allow for the exchange of ideas which is necessary for a tolerant society to flourish because it allows for hatred on the basis of religion or belief to be challenged.
The group’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick added:
We would never advocate for desecration of books, venerated objects and symbols, but to suggest this in and of itself impacts a person’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is unacceptable, unless constituted as part of a wider hate crime.
Human rights law applies to people. Books, venerated objects, and symbols, much like flags, are not protected by the right to freedom of religion or belief.
The question now will be what happened after the bill becomes a law.
Will Denmark really imprison people for criminal acts that have no actual victims? If the country 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.