In 2005 a Danish newspaper published a number of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed, which led to a global battle of values over the relationship between freedom of expression and religion. Despite multiple terrorist attacks—one of them deadly others thwarted—and concerted diplomatic pressure from the 57 Muslim-majority member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) led by countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, the Danish government held firm and refused demands to impose Islamic blasphemy norms.
However, recent events have shattered this resolve. Following months of of public Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden, as well as renewed and increased pressure from the OIC and attacks on the Swedish embassy in Iraq and a Danish non-governmental organization in Basra last month, Scandinavian democracies are retreating from their liberal principles.
On July 30, Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen announced that the government will seek to enact legislation for "special situations where other countries, cultures, and religions could be insulted, potentially resulting in significant negative consequences for Denmark." Sweden is mulling over similar actions. These capitulations have forced these countries to debate how far they are willing to go to defend their freedoms in the face of violence and international backlash.
On the one hand, there are good reasons to be critical of book burnings. It is a poor substitute for reasoned debate and one that will forever be associated with totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany, in our collective history. But however noxious the ideas of the far-right protestors who torch Qurans, they are not state agents, they are not speaking for the government, nor do they have the power to censor or discriminate. They are private individuals whose non-violent symbolic expressions are intended to convey a message, which however, offensive to those who disprove, is part and parcel of free expression.
The violence that accompanies these events stems both from terrorist groups as well as from counter protestors who insist that religious taboos can only be enforced through mob intimidation and violence, but they are mistaken.
In July, an Iranian citizen burned the Danish and Swedish flags as well as the Bible and Torah in front of the Israeli embassy in Copenhagen, praising Ayatollah Khomeini in the process. But few Danes cared about this deliberate attempt to provoke. No one threatened to use violence, and the protester was not arrested. Rather than demonstrating Danish hypocrisy, the protester managed to show how a secular society committed to both free speech and tolerance can handle offensive ideas, and also how these values serve as the antithesis to violence.
Despite these and other demonstrable merits of free speech, the recent steps taken by Denmark and Sweden reveal a concerning trend. Bowing to intimidation from politically authoritarian and religiously oppressive states sets a perilous precedent and gives oppressive regimes potential leverage to further undermine democratic principles. To sweeten this bitter pill the Danish government has been less than factual in its messaging. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that burning “sacred books” does not constitute an expression, despite established case law to the contrary. The government has also said that Denmark and Sweden are global outliers when it comes to permitting the desecration of “sacred books” even though both Norway and the Netherlands protect such symbolic expression. There are already also strong reasons to believe that the OIC will not be appeased by the proposed Danish legal restrictions, however rationalized.
The next day after the Danish government´s promise to explore legal remedies against Quran burnings, the OIC released a strongly worded statement admonishing Denmark and Sweden for failing to immediately criminalize them and pledging to continue to pursue the matter. The Turkish ambassador to Denmark also warned that the proposed Danish efforts were "insufficient." In other words, once democracies yield from principle, authoritarian states will not respond with gratitude and conciliatory attitudes but demand that the self-imposed restrictions on free speech be expanded more broadly. This is not only true in Scandinavia but also on the global stage.
Earlier this month, the OIC managed to secure a crucial win at the U.N.´s Human Rights Council with a resolution that calls on member states to, among other things, “address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred” as a direct response to the Scandinavian Quran burnings. The OIC argues that defamation of religious ideas and symbols constitutes incitement to religious hatred—a category of speech prohibited under international human rights law and in most European democracies. This would not just legitimize but also give legal teeth to the suppression of religious dissent, and would remove the stigma from countries where blasphemy and apostasy is severely punished.
This marks a radical departure from back in 2011, when the Obama Administration rallied democracies around the world and spearheaded a pivotal Human Rights Council Resolution to halt the OIC´s long-standing efforts to internationalize blasphemy laws. The 2011 resolution advocated education and counter-speech against religious intolerance, asserting the protection of people, not ideologies, under human rights law. It called for the penalization of "incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief," underlining that free speech restrictions should shield individuals from tangible harm, not defend abstract religious ideas from criticism or mockery, however offensive. As then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the resolution was a step to overcome “the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression.”
While this broader, international perspective is critical, it is also important to consider the domestic implications of the laws Denmark and Sweden have on the table. The Danish government´s proposed legal remedy against insulting other countries doesn’t only threaten to restrict criticism of Islam. In fact, Danish Muslims protesting U.S. or Israeli foreign policy, or the mass internment of Uighur Muslims by China, could end up on the wrong side of the law, if they protest in ways deemed “insulting” to the U.S., Israel, or China and detrimental to the broad and nebulous concept of “Danish interests.”
Moreover, the Danish and Swedish governments’ misguided attempt to foster tolerance through censorship could inadvertently exacerbate social divisions within their own borders. Hard-nosed critics of Islam and Muslim immigration frequently argue that Islam is incompatible with democracy and freedom, painting Muslims as a fifth column. The external pressure from Islamic states, coupled with support for restrictive measures among some Danish Muslims, risks emboldening these divisive narratives. This stands to harm the many Scandinavian Muslims who appreciate the freedoms and equality that Denmark and Sweden offer, and which sets these countries apart from the Muslim-majority states of the OIC.
Free speech is a difficult principle to uphold consistently. Governments and citizens of democracies alike are frequently tempted to sacrifice this principle when faced with threats or adverse consequences of unpopular or extremist speech. But one only has to compare the vibrant democracies of Denmark and Sweden to the authoritarian regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia to realize that, for all its flaws, free speech makes the world more tolerant, democratic, equal, and free. Denmark and Sweden’s defection from this core liberal principle is a dark day for the global fight for free speech.
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