Blasphemy, Danish Style

Happy Update: As of June 2, 2017, Denmark has repealed its blasphemy law! How cool is that! Nice to see a blog post become outdated so fast.

Some recent history…

  • 1997: Danish artist burns a copy of the Bible on a news show. No charges ensued.
  • 2005: Danish newspaper publishes cartoons depicting Mohammed. Ignored at first, the cartoons eventually elicited reaction around the world. Embassies were burned, Danish products were boycotted, but no charges were filed against the artists or newspaper.
  • 2015: A Danish citizen burns his copy of the Quran in his backyard; he films this act and posts it to Facebook. In 2016, he is charged with blasphemy. The man claims self defense. “The Quran contains passages on how Mohammed’s followers must kill the infidel, i.e. the Danes,” he said. “Therefore, it’s an act of self-defense to burn a book that in such a way incites war and violence.”

Few European countries still have blasphemy laws; Denmark is one of the few. An English translation of its law reads thus: “Anyone who publicly mocks or insults the tenets of faith or worship of any religious community existing in this country legally will be punished by fine or imprisonment for up to four months.”

A few years ago, Denmark considered repealing its law, but declined to do so. This is the first time it has been invoked since 1971, so the charge this year took many by surprise. Jacob Mchangama, director of a Danish civil liberties group Justitia, believes the prosecutor wants to fend off threats of terrorist attacks. What do you think?

Europeans have given a lot of thought to reconciling liberal values of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, especially as their countries have become increasingly diverse. One publication that documents this effort to reconcile the inherent tension between these two freedoms is a 2010 publication from The Council of Europe, Blasphemy, insult and hatred: finding answers in a democratic society. 

How much should we censor ourselves? Others? How much deference do we owe to people with strong religious beliefs? How much self-censorship can democracy withstand? Can laws protect individuals while permitting offensive speech aimed at ideologies and religions?

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