Jacob Mchangama is founder and director of Justitia, a think tank based in Copenhagen.
On April 25, the Danish Parliament will have an opportunity to distinguish itself from countries such as Iran and Pakistan. What does liberal Denmark have in common with these two Islamic republics, you ask? At first sight, not much. Denmark ranks No. 1 in the 2016 Rule of Law Index, far above both of those two countries. Freedom House puts Denmark in the category of “Free,” noting in particular the country’s strong commitment to a free press. Iran, by contrast, is “Not Free” in every respect. Pakistan is “Partly Free” overall, but “Not Free” when it comes to freedom of the press and Internet.
Yet Denmark, Iran and Pakistan do have one thing in common. They all enforce the criminalization of different forms of blasphemy. On Tuesday, the Danish Parliament will vote on whether to abolish its blasphemy ban, which until recently had been thought of as a dead letter. The last trial on blasphemy charges took place in 1971, and no one has been convicted since 1946. In 1997, the chief prosecutor, citing freedom of expression, decided not to prosecute when a Danish artist burned the Bible on national television. The prosecutor made the same decision in 2005, when the Jyllands-Posten newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, sparking an international crisis. But in February, a regional prosecutor decided to revive the ban against public mockery of religion by charging a man for having uploaded a video of himself burning the Koran to a Facebook group.
To be sure, there are still very different consequences for blaspheming in Denmark compared with Iran and Pakistan. The Danish defendant merely risks a fine, whereas blaspheming in Iran and Pakistan involves a serious risk of imprisonment and even death. Recently an Iranian youth, Sina Dehghan, was sentenced to death for insulting the prophet in a text message. In Pakistan, numerous bloggers have been arrested for blasphemy, and a Christian woman convicted for blasphemy has spent seven years on death row.
In addition to nebulous and draconian criminal laws, vigilante enforcement of blasphemy norms are also common in a number of countries. Just this month, for example, Fazal Abbas — a Shiite Muslim in Pakistan, and thus from a religious minority — was shot dead by three women. Ironically, Abbas had sought refuge in Denmark after being accused of blasphemy in 2004, but had recently returned to Pakistan to fight the case, believing that he would be acquitted. The “jihadist veto” has also made itself felt in Europe, as witnessed by the massacre of journalists and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris in 2015 and the deadly terrorist attack against a free-speech debate in Copenhagen the same year. And it is exactly the fear of violent reactions by extremists at home and abroad that is driving the Danish revival of the blasphemy ban.
But trying to appease extremists through compromising fundamental freedoms not only is misguided (extremists, after all, don’t care about the rule of law) — it also legitimizes the intolerance that lies behind the enforcement of draconian blasphemy laws. In a report on Denmark from 2016, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief worried that the Danish blasphemy ban might be abused by other states. He highlighted an international meeting in Saudi Arabia in 2015 where a Pakistani representative used the Danish blasphemy ban to argue that a global ban on “defamation of religions” is emerging in customary international law.
It is indeed convenient for countries that use blasphemy laws to persecute minorities and dissenters to point to blasphemy laws on the books in democracies, thereby justifying their repression through legal “whataboutism.” But in the European Union, only five member states still have blasphemy bans, and the E.U.’s own external action guidelines on freedom of religion and expression recommend repealing blasphemy laws since they “restrict expression concerning religious or other beliefs” and “are often applied so as to persecute, mistreat, or intimidate persons belonging to religious or other minorities.” The U.N.’s Human Rights Committee has declared blasphemy bans incompatible with freedom of expression under international human rights law, a position supported by many states and civil society organizations.
As the cartoon crisis showed, free speech is no longer a strictly national issue. With social media and widespread Internet access, a video or comment uploaded in Copenhagen is instantly available in Cairo and Karachi. This raises the question of who gets to decide the red lines for global discussions on critical issues such as religion. The many religious minorities, atheists, skeptics and freethinkers around the world who languish in jail, or who live in constant fear of being set upon by the mob, look to liberal democracies to side with freedom and advance the cause of tolerance. Denmark should send a clear message that it stands with the victims, and not with the enforcers, of blasphemy laws. That will require abolishing Denmark’s outdated and shameful blasphemy ban.