Here’s a fascinating story in the New York Times about a prosecution in Denmark for blasphemy, against a man who burned a Koran and posted his burning to Facebook. It seems that blasphemy laws remain on the Danish books, notwithstanding that the country is, by all accounts, very secular. Though the decision to charge was made at the local level, it has been ratified by Denmark’s attorney general.
No one has been convicted under the Danish blasphemy laws since 1946, when the law was used to prosecute a man who dressed up as a priest and mock “baptized” a doll.
A few thoughts:
1. Apparently the defendant had been charged initially with a “hate speech” crime, but the charge was subsequently changed to blasphemy. Perhaps hate speech is a lesser included offense? The linear continuity of hate speech with blasphemy is itself worthy of a separate article. Indeed, as I have argued at length, but as Tocqueville said more pithily, freedom never governs without faith. The only real question for a society that enjoys some speech protections is for what ends speech will be restricted, not whether it will restrict it at all. Of course, it will. And it seems altogether natural that the proscription on hate speech would in the end find its fullest and most complete expression in the zealotry (I use the term neutrally) of an anti-blasphemy law. (Parenthetically, the man also stated that he hated children. That seems rather sweeping, and perhaps worthy of its own hate speech prosecution. Perhaps if he had said, “I hate some children,” one might be more sympathetic.)
2. Denmark of course has a recent history of conflict with Islam, as in the infamous Mohammed cartoon incident about 10 years ago that resulted in no charges, and, as the story says, “deadly riots, attacks on Danish embassies in the Middle East and a trade boycott against Denmark.” Perhaps, for these and other reasons, Denmark has come to a different conclusion today. Still, it’s clear from the story that the burning of a Bible is legal, since in 1997 a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on television and nobody batted an eye. Perhaps what Denmark really needs is to refine its blasphemy laws–to give more detailed guidance about which religious texts may be defiled with impunity and which must be let alone. One thing that Denmark should not do: abandon blasphemy laws. It will only send such laws underground, and similar policies will be enforced through other means without the honesty of calling them what they are (vide, e.g., hate speech).
3. The defendant’s lawyer seems to be making the utterly bizarre claim that the man acted in “self-defense” in burning the Koran, because the Koran contains language about how Mohammed’s followers “must kill the infidel.” I don’t know the Danish law of self-defense, but this strikes me as a highly unusual principle of proportionality. But I suppose we need to know about the physical assaults committed by the Koran on this poor man in order properly to judge the self-defense claim.
4. Don’t miss the wonderful comments of Professor Per Mouritsen, who with one side of his mouth tells us that “blasphemy law is a thing of the past” and with the other tells the Times that in Denmark, “the very idea that religion is taken seriously is the antithesis of being a good citizen.” Perhaps Denmark should adopt laws authorizing the state-enforced (but nondiscriminatory, of course) burning of all holy books. It could be done on a state holiday. Call it “Conflagration Sunday.”