The recurring question: Who’s assimilating whom?
Blasphemy norms have already been resurrected for images of Mohammed in western media, much of which is terrified of becoming the next Charlie Hebdo. Blasphemy laws remain rare, but they do still exist here and there. The striking thing about the new Denmark case isn’t just that the state is attempting to impose a criminal penalty for blasphemy; it’s the fact that Denmark found itself in the international vanguard of free-speech champions 12 years ago when Jyllands-Posten published the Mohammed cartoons and Islamists around the world staged an outrage orgy. Cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the most famous of the Jyllands-Posten images (Mohammed with a bomb as his turban), was nearly murdered in his own home because of it in 2010. Danish authorities considered charging Jyllands-Posten with blasphemy at the time but ended up declining, probably because the incident quickly became a global flashpoint between western norms and Islamic norms. Under the circumstances, a blasphemy charge would have been seen, correctly, as capitulation to fanatics and appeasement driven by fear.
So they waited 12 years, and then they capitulated.
A Danish man who posed a video of himself setting fire to the Quran on Facebook has been charged with blasphemy in the first such prosecution for 46 years.
The 42-year-old suspect put the clip, entitled “Consider your neighbour: it stinks when it burns” to a group called “YES TO FREEDOM – NO TO ISLAM” in December 2015.
Jan Reckendorff, from the public prosecutor’s office in Viborg, said: “It is the prosecution’s view that circumstances involving the burning of holy books such as the Bible and the Quran can in some cases be a violation of the blasphemy clause, which covers public scorn or mockery of religion…
Under clause 140 of Denmark’s penal code, anyone can be imprisoned or fined for publicly insulting or degrading religious doctrines or worship.
There have been a grand total of three prosecutions for blasphemy in Danish history to this point, two successful ones just before and after World War II and another in 1971 that ended with acquittal after two radio hosts aired a song mocking Christianity. This makes four, and could land the mystery offender up to four months in prison. The statutory penalty is almost meaningless, though, compared to what awaits this guy if/when his identity becomes publicly known, as I assume it will when the case goes to trial or he pleads. He’ll be targeted for death as surely as Westergaard was and Danish prosecutors know it. If they want to deter anti-Muslim blasphemy in the name of keeping the peace, i.e. in the name of Islamic fanatics not going berserk and trying to kill people, they don’t have to charge anyone with anything. All they’d have to do is name the Koran-burner in the video and let the fear of imminent death drive him underground or into exile. In fact, I wonder if that calculation explains why it took them so long to charge the suspect after the video first appeared in 2015. Did they actually spend 15 months trying to track him down? Or did they agonize over how much more difficult his life would be if they brought charges before deciding, sure, let’s bring charges and make and example of him?
Two years ago, in the days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, some encouraged western media to show solidarity with the dead and their right of free expression by republishing some of Hebdo’s Mohammed images. Many Danish papers complied — but not Jyllands-Posten, the one that had published the original Mohammed cartoons 10 years before. And they made no bones about their reasoning:
Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which angered Muslims by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad 10 years ago, will not republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons due to security concerns, the only major Danish newspaper not to do so.
“It shows that violence works,” the newspaper stated in its editorial on Friday…
“We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s,” Jyllands-Posten said. “We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”
The prospect of volence worked on J-P and now it’s working on the Danish state itself. How’s that for progress in free speech since 2005? And it’ll get worse. My strong suspicion is that, as Danish prosecutors take heat for this decision at home and from abroad, they’ll feel pressure to prove that the blasphemy law isn’t being applied selectively to critics of Islam. It’s rare for the media to admit that it’s suppressing blasphemous images out of fear, notwithstanding Jyllands-Posten’s example above; usually they frame it as a matter of “sensitivity” to cultural norms to try to save face. The Danish government will, I assume, try to save face itself by looking around for someone to prosecute for anti-Christian blasphemy, in order to prove that the law is being applied evenhandedly. Net result: An even broader revival of blasphemy laws, with even fewer free-speech protections for critics of religion. And the Danish public might go along with it. As of 2012, 66 percent opposed repealing the country’s blasphemy law, although that may have been due in part to the fact that the law hadn’t actually been enforced in decades. Westerners might tolerate a ceremonial blasphemy law, to encourage the public to show respect for religion, but let’s see how they react when the statute is actually being used as a sword against the irreligious. Particularly when it means giving Muslim sensibilities the force of law.
Exit question for Danish/European readers: Have Danish Muslims been agitating about this Koran-burning incident from 2015? I’ve never heard of it, but it must be a matter of some controversy for Danish authorities to revisit it after 15 months.