The New York Times reports that a local prosecutor in Denmark has brought a blasphemy charge against a forty-two-year-old man who burned a copy of the Quran in his backyard and posted a video of the act on his Facebook page. The Danish penal code makes blasphemy, defined as “publicly insulting the tenets of faith or worship” of a recognized religious community, a crime punishable by a fine or up to four months’ imprisonment. This prosecution, which the country’s attorney general had to approve, is the first of its kind in decades. The last successful blasphemy prosecution in Denmark occurred in 1946.
This is a truly singular occurrence. Many European countries, including Denmark, have hate-speech laws that prohibit speech that denigrates or threatens persons on the basis of certain characteristics, including religion. (Here in the U.S., courts consistently have ruled hate-speech laws unconstitutional.) But this is not a hate-speech prosecution. The defendant in this case evidently did not insult or threaten Muslims as people. Instead, he publicly insulted Muslim belief, especially Muslim belief in the sanctity of the Quran. And that, according to the prosecutor, merits punishment under Danish law.
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.
And here’s a final irony: The prosecution of the Quran burner is supported by Denmark’s progressive, left-wing Social Democrats, whom one might have expected to take a hard line on secularism and a dim view of blasphemy laws. The party’s spokeswoman commented, “I struggle to see how … we’ll achieve a stronger society, or how we’ll enrich the public debate, if the burning of holy books [is] permitted.”
What explains these ironies? Why do Danish authorities prosecute insults against Islam but not insults against Christianity? Perhaps the prosecutor reasons that, as a minority religion in Denmark, Muslims have more to fear from public mockery of their religion than Christians do. Perhaps he worries that public mockery of Muslim beliefs could create an atmosphere conducive to acts of intimidation and violence against Muslim believers. There’s something to that argument. But if he is concerned about this video’s potential to create a climate of intimidation against Danish Muslims, he could have brought a hate-speech charge, which he declined to do.
Or perhaps the authorities worry that this incident will cause a violent backlash from some Muslims around the world, as occurred in 2006 during the infamous Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy, when mobs attacked Danish embassies in the Mideast. The backlash from the cartoon controversy continues even today; only a couple of years ago, a gunman killed two people, and wounded five police officers, in Copenhagen in connection with an exhibition that featured the original cartoonist. But this particular Quran burning seems to have gone unnoticed; no one was complaining. In fact, the prosecution itself seems likely to draw attention to the incident and spark protests.
Something very puzzling is going on here. I don’t approve Quran burning, of course. If I were a Muslim, I’d feel deeply affronted—just as I feel deeply affronted, as a Christian, by the various public mockeries of my own religion that occur every day. And I understand, as my colleague Marc DeGirolami observes, that free speech is never absolute; it’s all a matter of picking which expression a society will allow and which it will not. But it’s worth asking why this particular anti-religious expression, out of so many others, should draw the ire of prosecutors—why, in a secular, progressive, enlightened society like twenty-first-century Denmark, it’s legal to burn a Bible, but not to burn a Quran.