Blasphemy in Denmark

At the First Things site today, I have a post on the current blasphemy controversy in Denmark, which Marc discussed here last week. Prosecutors have brought a blasphemy charge against a man who posted a video of himself burning a copy of the Quran. I don’t favor Quran burning, of course. But I ask why a secular, progressive country like Denmark would bring a blasphemy prosecution in 2017:

The ironies abound. Blasphemy prosecutions are not so unusual in Muslim-majority countries, where they often serve as pretexts for the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. In fact, this month marks the sixth anniversary of the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian Pakistani politician who had criticized that country’s blasphemy laws; his murderers called Bhatti “a known blasphemer.” But blasphemy prosecutions are vanishingly rare in the West. In America, the Supreme Court ruled blasphemy laws unconstitutional in 1952. Most European countries have abolished their blasphemy laws; where such laws continue to exist, they are dead letters.

Moreover, Western countries have made opposing blasphemy laws a major international human rights cause. At the U.N. Human Rights Council, America and its European allies have objected strenuously to so-called “Defamation of Religion” resolutions introduced in recent years by Muslim-majority countries, on the ground that such resolutions encourage local blasphemy laws and stifle free expression. Since 2011, American and European diplomats have convinced proponents to accept a compromise resolution, one that condemns discrimination and the incitement of violence against persons on the basis of religion—a resolution protecting believers, rather than beliefs as such.

For a European government to bring a blasphemy prosecution in 2017, therefore, is incongruous, to say the least. And Denmark is one of the least religious places on the planet. True, it has a state church, to which the large majority of Danes belong. But that is mostly a formal thing. Religious belief and observance are quite low. Fewer than a third of Danes say they believe in God; only about 2 percent go to church each Sunday. And Danish authorities have turned a blind eye to blasphemy in the past. In 1997, for example, someone burned a copy of the Bible on a news broadcast on state television. The government did not file charges.

Why is it legal in Denmark to burn the Bible but not the Quran? You can read the whole post here.

Danish Blasphemy Prosecution for Koran Burning

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.”

Janssen, “Faith in Public Debate”

In April, Intersentia published “Faith in Public Debate: On Freedom of Expression, Hate Speech and Religion in France and The Netherlands,” by Esther Janssen (University of Amsterdam).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Should a politician be free to fiercely attack the religion of a sector of the population? Should he be allowed to strongly reject the culture of a
 particular minority group? Should religious adherents be allowed to advocate the transition from a democratic to a theocratic state? Should a satirical magazine be free to mock religious figures and practices? These sort of questions concern ‘the place of faith in public debate’ and continue to dominate public discussion that has been fuelled by a series of events, including the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and London; the assassination of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh; the affair of the Danish Cartoons; the prosecution of Dutch politician Geert Wilders for his statements on Islam and Muslims; and the terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

The overarching question triggered by these events concerns the relationship between freedom of expression and the regulation of ‘hate speech’; which forms of hate speech should the state prohibit, on what grounds and by which means? Notably, the restriction of hate speech uttered in the context of the public debate about multiculturalism, immigration, integration and Islam, and of religious fundamentalism has become a topic of lively discussion.

This research constitutes the first international comparative study that provides a profound analysis of the law on hate speech in France and the Netherlands and under European and international law. It thoroughly examines the national legislation, its drafting history, policy and other legal documents and case law including famous legal cases against Dutch politician Geert Wilders, French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and le Front National, French comedian Dieudonné and satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It also makes reference to the most recent international hate speech literature and discusses its key issues. This book can, thereby, form a source of inspiration for anyone interested or involved in the regulation of hate speech: academics; legislators; judges; prosecutors; politicians; interested citizens; and involved NGO’s and can contribute to the ‘faith in public debate’, by elucidating its possible boundaries.

Watts, “The Final Pagan Generation”

In February, the University of California Press released “The Final Pagan Generation,” by Edward J. Watts (University of California, San Diego). The publisher’s description follows:

The Final Pagan Generation recounts the fascinating story of the lives and fortunes of the last Romans born before the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Edward J. Watts traces their experiences of living through the fourth century’s dramatic religious and political changes, when heated confrontations saw the Christian establishment legislate against pagan practices as mobs attacked pagan holy sites and temples. The emperors who issued these laws, the imperial officials charged with implementing them, and the Christian perpetrators of religious violence were almost exclusively young men whose attitudes and actions contrasted markedly with those of the earlier generation, who shared neither their juniors’ interest in creating sharply defined religious identities nor their propensity for violent conflict. Watts examines why the “final pagan generation”—born to the old ways and the old world in which it seemed to everyone that religious practices would continue as they had for the past two thousand years—proved both unable to anticipate the changes that imperially sponsored Christianity produced and unwilling to resist them. A compelling and provocative read, suitable for the general reader as well as students and scholars of the ancient world.

Gubo, “Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions in a Polarized World”

This December, Lexington Books will release “Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions in a Polarized World: How Religious Fundamentalism is Challenging Fundamental Human Rights” by Darara Gubo.  The publisher’s description follows:

The 21st century has been significantly shaped by the growing importance of religion in international politics resulting in rising polarization among nation states. This new dynamic has presented new challenges to international human rights principles. This book deals with some of these new challenges, particularly the growing demand by Muslim states for protection of Islamic religion from blasphemy and defamation. Member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), through resolutions at the United Nations, made efforts to introduce laws that globally protect Islamic religion from blasphemy and defamation. The bid by OIC member states faced opposition from Western countries. The conflicting claims of the two sides are discussed in this book. The book clearly shows the impact of blasphemy and defamation of religion laws on certain aspects of fundamental human rights principles.

Abbas, “Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws”

This July, the University of Texas Press will publish Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban by Shemeem Burney Abbas (SUNY Purchase). The publisher’s description follows.Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws

Under the guise of Islamic law, the prophet Muhammad’s Islam, and the Qur’an, states such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh are using blasphemy laws to suppress freedom of speech. Yet the Prophet never tried or executed anyone for blasphemy, nor does the Qur’an authorize the practice. Asserting that blasphemy laws are neither Islamic nor Qur‘anic, Shemeem Burney Abbas traces the evolution of these laws from the Islamic empires that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad to the present-day Taliban. Her pathfinding study on the shari’a and gender demonstrates that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are the inventions of a military state that manipulates discourse in the name of Islam to exclude minorities, women, free thinkers, and even children from the rights of citizenship.

Abbas herself was persecuted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, so she writes from both personal experience and years of scholarly study. Her analysis exposes the questionable motives behind Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which were resurrected during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime of 1977–1988—motives that encompassed gaining geopolitical control of the region, including Afghanistan, in order to weaken the Soviet Union. Abbas argues that these laws created a state-sponsored “infidel” ideology that now affects global security as militant groups such as the Taliban justify violence against all “infidels” who do not subscribe to their interpretation of Islam. She builds a strong case for the suspension of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and for a return to the Prophet’s peaceful vision of social justice.

Blasphemy in Greece

Here’s an interesting report from NPR on two recent prosecutions for the crime of blasphemy in Greece. In the first, the government brought a blasphemy charge against the poster of a Facebook page that mocks a famous Orthodox monk; the government has since dropped the blasphemy charge but has maintained a prosecution for the separate crime of “insulting religion.” In the second, the government is prosecuting the producers of a Greek translation of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, a play that depicts Jesus and his disciples as a group of gay men in Texas.

Most European states have abolished the crime of blasphemy. The UK did so in 2008. Nonetheless, the European Court of Human Rights has held more than once that states may criminalize blasphemy in order to protect human dignity — that is, in order to protect the religious sensibilities of listeners from gratuitous and substantial offense. States can’t ban all criticism of religion, of course, only criticism that is insulting or abusive. Obviously, this is not an easy line to draw. In the US, in fact, the Supreme Court has suggested strongly that blasphemy laws are unconstitutional, in part because of the line-drawing problems.

What about the Greek prosecutions in these cases? I can’t read Greek, but the Facebook page in question, which you can access from the NPR story, seems more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. I’m not surprised the government dropped the blasphemy prosecution, though, of course, the prosecution for “insulting religion” continues. The Corpus Christi case seems closer to those in which the European Court has allowed blasphemy prosecutions in the past. In the 1990s, the court allowed Austria to ban a film that depicted sexual tensions between Christ and the Virgin Mary, and allowed the UK to ban a film depicting the vision of St. Theresa of Avila in erotic terms. So the Court might be inclined to allow prosecution in the Corpus Christi case, too, if the case ever reaches Strasbourg. Then again, Greece doesn’t stand so high in the opinion of European institutions these days.

Pakistan Court Acquits Girl in Quran-Burning Case

A court in Pakistan today acquitted Rimsha Masih, the teenage girl whose arrest on blasphemy charges this summer drew worldwide attention. A local mullah had accused Masih, who has Downs Syndrome, of burning pages from a Quran. The case against her fell apart, however, when associates accused the mullah of planting the incriminating evidence. Masih has been out on bail at an undisclosed location. The case has shed light on Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which, detractors claim, is often used as a pretext for settling scores with Christians and other religious minorities. The Wall Street Journal has the story here.

Sherwood, “Biblical Blaspheming”

Last month, Cambridge University Press published Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for the Secular Age by Yvonne Sherwood (University of Glasgow).  The publisher’s description follows.

This book explores the strange persistence of ‘blasphemy’ in modern secular democracies by examining how accepted and prohibited ways of talking and thinking about the Bible and religion have changed over time. In a series of wide-ranging studies engaging disciplines such as politics, literature and visual theory, Yvonne Sherwood brings the Bible into dialogue with a host of interlocutors including John Locke, John Donne and the 9/11 hijackers, as well as artists such as Sarah Lucas and René Magritte. Questions addressed include:  What is the origin of the common belief that the Bible, as opposed to the Qur’an, underpins liberal democratic values?  What kind of artworks does the biblical God specialise in?  If pre-modern Jewish, Christian and Islamic responses to scripture can be more ‘critical’ than contemporary speech about religion, how does this affect our understanding of secularity, modernity and critique?

WEIRD Values

At a lawyers conference I attended recently, the conversation turned to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the offensive YouTube video that has sparked riots throughout the Muslim world. “Why do they react this way?” a partner at a major law firm asked, referring to Muslim societies. The idea that people would take such offense at an inept video, and blame American society in general rather than the individuals who produced the film, was incomprehensible to this American lawyer: “We would never react that way.” The other lawyers agreed.

This conversation came back to me this week as I read Jonathan Haidt’s very worthwhile new book, The Righteous Mind. Mostly, the book explores the different moral psychologies of American conservatives and liberals.  (Haidt argues that the differences are largely innate — “pre-wired,” he says — thus confirming Iolanthe’s famous observation that “every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal /Or else a little Conservative!”). One chapter, though, compares American moral intuitions with those of other societies. America, Haidt says, has what psychologists call a WEIRD culture — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD cultures have a strong “ethic of autonomy”: they hold that “people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences” which, barring direct harm to others, should be fulfilled. In such cultures, as Jean Bethke Elshtain remarked at First Things’s annual Erasmus Lecture this week, “loyalty” principally means “being true to oneself.” The First Amendment reflects this ethic: it promotes the widest possible range of individual expression and advises offended listeners to avoid harm by turning away.

Largely through American influence, WEIRD values increasingly dominate international human rights discourse. This is ironic, because WEIRD cultures are global outliers — and America is the farthest outlier of all. Most of the world does not see autonomy as the most important value and does not privilege individual expression to the extent we do. Many cultures, Haidt says, have an Continue reading

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