Denmark: Preventing Criticism of Islam More Important than Freedom

opinion

Burning literature is a condemnable act of intellectual weakness which should not be encouraged. Yet, in a society that allows freedom, rather than embrace the alternative, individuals must be free do so. It is not the state’s role to instruct individuals what to do with their property, how to react to ideology and theology and how to express their views towards their property.

To criminalise the burning of religious literature is to criminalise individuals for expressing their opinions on that literature, however toxic that response may be. Also, it protects religious books in an exclusive manner. The move establishes a double standard. Why should religious books, with certain beliefs in certain deities or systems of theological practice, ever be given privilege over any other point of view?

Additionally, no piece of literature should be protected by laws or declared sacred either. When you make a piece of literature sacrosanct, you declare it above criticism. You may not officially endorse the views within it, but by affording them special protections, you shield them from criticism. When you declare literature to be sacred you not only place these words away from challenge and above scrutiny, you also give them authority and make those who criticise them afraid to do so. This chills free speech, and this form of religious dialogue needs no restrictions. We’ve seen individuals attempt to restrict dialogue in Denmark and danish society via force, and secular society should not give in to such pressure. As we can then see, when literature is above scrutiny and sacred, you undermine the rights of those who disagree with it.

Denmark, Flag, Islam,
Pakistani demonstrators burned a Danish flag in 2006. They were protesting the publication of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. Credit Khalid Tanveer/Associated Press

Danish prosecutors, however, have clearly decided that it is more important to prosecute a man for burning a Qu’ran, probably due to previous intimidations, rather than respect his freedom to express his dislike of the Qu’ran through burning it. Why should this religion, or indeed any, be shielded from the criticisms of a blasphemer posting a video to his Facebook account? Surely Allah and the followers of Islam were not wounded by such a move, if they adhere to the truth and Allah is omnipotent?

The man, and his genuinely disturbing and simplistic beliefs, may be unpleasant or odious, but these are not crimes, nor should they ever become criminalised.

Why is the Qu’ran deserving of a place as more sacred than other literature? Certain groups holding it in high esteem should not be a good enough answer; it is views like those of the Danish man who despises the book that are in need of protection. Surely, even if it were a more sacred tome, it should be open to criticism, even if that includes the inadequate form of burning? Shielding religion from criticism is ultimately often the tactic of those who cannot defend their belief. The first tactic of the ideologue or cult is to ban those who would mock him or his ideology and theology. Why? Because the ideologue or cult is indisputable serious and those who mock it are incorrect. So incorrect, so mistaken, that there should be legal remedies to silence them. Why defend your beliefs when you can silence those asking questions of them?

Laughter spreads quickly. Mockery and lampooning an individual can often be what crushes them politically.

In secular Western societies, like Denmark, in which no religion should be protected from criticism or ridicule, surely to give Islam such a protection is also to infantilise her followers? Surely to protect them from criticism is to suggest that they cannot rationally handle or deal with criticism? Surely, a religion of peace and tolerance can take a little peaceful intolerance to its theology?

In prosecuting a man for “publicly insulting or degrading religious doctrines or worship,” Denmark again undermines her commitment to rational enquiry and free speech. Surely any individual should be able to insult a religious belief? Is it not unpopular beliefs that challenge religion that need their freedom protected? Surely the Danish state should be protecting non-violent, but controversial views from violent repercussions? Consider the reason given for prosecution again: surely the method by which individuals worship must be something that individuals should be able to criticise. When some Danish Muslims believe their religious doctrine instructs them to murder those who insult their prophet or theology, is insulting this religious practice something that should be criminalised? Are honour killings, something some see as integral to parts of Islam, above question?

This becomes deeply concerning for the future of free speech in Denmark.

Jen Reckendorff of the Viborg Public Prosecutions Office claims that, “It is the prosecution’s view that circumstances involving the burning of holy books such as the Bible and the Koran can in some cases be a violation of the blasphemy clause, which covers public scorn or mockery of religion.”

This should be concerning to us all: charging an individual for mockery of religion has a chilling effect on the freedom to criticise regressive religious views. Surely this precedent set in charging individuals, even if it does not ultimately lead to a successful conviction, is that an individual should not criticise religion. If this man is found guilty, it is accompanied by possibly a minor jail sentence of four years, or a fine. This is a deeply questionable prospect for individuals in Denmark: surely this, whilst the effects may seem small, will make individuals reconsider whether they can criticise a religious belief? Also, if an individual is continually charged, surely this means they would be less likely to criticise a religious view?

Andrew Stuttaford illustrates one of the major problems faced by those tried for blasphemy: “The process itself, with its expense, anxiety and more, is both punishment and a message that the authorities want to send out to any Dane thinking of expressing the wrong sort of thoughts about Islam in the wrong way.”

Could it be that Denmark is intimidated by previous terrorist attacks after Danish magazines and individuals criticised Islam? In 1997, the Qu’ran was allegedly burnt on national television and not a single piece of action was taken. Could it be that after the terror attacks in Copenhagen, Islamic terrorism and regressive views have shaped the national response to such protests? Trine Bramsen, spokesperson for the Social Democrats of Denmark’s Centre-Left argues that, “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”. The problem, which Ms Bramsen ignores, is that the danger is NOT permitting the burning of holy books.

Surely whether a contribution is seen to be beneficial is not a basis on which we decide on if it is allowed to be made or not? It must be noted that restricting comments deemed to be unhelpful opens the possibility of a new form of censorship. Who decides which view is helpful and which is not? Judiciary, politicians, or you? I think this is path which we must avoid.

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About Robbie Travers 3 Articles
Robbie Travers is a Political Commentator at the Gatestone Institute, former Communications staff at the Human Security Centre, and a law student at the University of Edinburgh. He has written for Left Foot Forward, the Telegraph, and the Clarion Project.

2 Comments

  1. This sort of thing is the reason we have the First Amendment in the US. “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion …”, and like it or not, laws which put any religion out of bounds of criticism effectively create a state establishment of that religion. The state should not be the guardian of the sanctity of anything, its rightful sphere of influence is that of the profane, not the sacred. Blasphemy laws serve as an encroachment on necessary freedoms of speech which must be encouraged, not shut down by clerics, if society is to remain free. And without this essential freedom, religious corruption will become inevitable and reform impossible.

  2. Nice one Robbie. You do a great job of analysing the key issues here. You present cogent arguments for freedom of expression, calling out the double-standard.

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