The New York Times (my emphasis added):
A 42-year-old man who burned a Quran and posted a video of it on Facebook has been charged with blasphemy in Denmark, a striking decision by prosecutors in a country that is largely secular but has grappled with the role of Islam in public life…
The decision to charge the Quran burner was made by a regional prosecutor in Viborg, on the Jutland peninsula, and had to be approved by the country’s attorney general.
The blasphemy law has been invoked only a handful of times since its creation in 1866, most recently in 1971, when two people broadcast a song mocking Christianity and stirred a debate over female sexuality. They were acquitted. No one has been convicted of the crime since 1946, when a man dressed himself up as a priest and mock-baptized a doll at a masquerade ball.
In the current case, the suspect, who was not identified by the authorities but called himself John Salvesen on Facebook, uploaded video footage of a Quran being burned in his backyard. In the 4-minute, 15-second clip, the clicking sounds of a lighter are heard before flames engulf the large leather-bound book.
The video was posted on Dec. 27, 2015, to a Facebook group called “Yes to Freedom — No to Islam.” Above the video, shared 415 times, were the words: “Consider your neighbor, it stinks when it burns.” One commenter wrote: “If I had the Quran I’d also burn it, that’s the only thing it’s good for. Gives a bit of heat.”
The man’s Facebook page was full of messages critical of Islam, refugees and women. In one post, he even wrote, “I hate children.”
Not the most likable of individuals, it seems, but that, in this context, is neither here nor there. A decade or so ago, shortly after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the Mohammed cartoons, I wrote an article examining the reaction elsewhere in Europe to Denmark’s defense of free speech:
Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It’s in Danish only, but one phrase (“Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”) stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
That was then.
After the Charlie-Hebdo massacre all but one of Denmark’s major newspapers published some of the French magazine’s edgier cartoons. The one that did not was Jyllands-Posten, citing security concerns, a decision, the newspaper explained, showed that “violence works”.
Back to The New York Times (again, my emphasis added):
Jacob Mchangama, director of Justitia, a Danish civil liberties group, called the decision to file charges the latest sign of a declining respect for free speech in Europe. “It’s a sad development but one that mirrors developments elsewhere,” he said.
Mr. Mchangama said he thought the prosecutor was motivated by a desire to fend off the threat of terrorist attacks. “Danish authorities are afraid that the Quran burning could spark a new crisis, and if they say that they’ve actually charged this person, this is a way to appease or at least avoid such a crisis,” he said.
The Times writes brightly that ‘only’ five EU countries have blasphemy laws on the books (not nothing, I reckon, in a union of 28), but fails to note how European authorities in a number of other member-states have sometimes used ‘hate crimes’ legislation as a de facto blasphemy law. Lest we forget: Free speech is not a #EuropeanValue .
Oh yes, according to the Koran-burner’s defence lawyer, in 1997 a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on a news show by a state broadcaster. There was no prosecution.
And there wouldn’t be now I reckon, which is how it should be. But the fact that there wouldn’t is simultaneously a double standard, patronizing (Muslim sensitivities apparently need special protection) and, yet again, a recognition that violence works.
So, usually, does intimidation by the state. According to the Times, “a trial has been scheduled for June. If convicted, the defendant faces up to four months in prison or a fine.” But a conviction and any penalty are not really the point. 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.
Meanwhile, Trine Bramsen, a member of Parliament and a spokeswoman of the Social Democrats (the leading party of Denmark’s center-left) has, the Times reports, 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”.
So what? Burning the Koran may add nothing (or less than nothing) to the debate, but the idea that controversial expressions of opinion can only be permitted if they are in the interests of a “stronger society” (whatever that is) or “enrich the public debate” (whoever decides that) is entirely at odds with the idea of truly free speech.
And so, needless to say, are blasphemy laws.