Denmark repealed its blasphemy law. Will other nations follow?

The Danish flag above a municipal administration building. Credit: Aidan Wakely-Mulroney via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
The Danish flag above a municipal administration building. Credit: Aidan Wakely-Mulroney via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

.- The Danish parliament has repealed an anti-blasphemy law at a time when such laws are still used around the world.

“I am glad they are dropping the law. But the law was almost never used in the last 46 years, so it is only a small step,” Paul Marshall, Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, told CNA. He thought it significant that it had not been used in recent instances of blasphemy against Christians.

“Throughout the world blasphemy laws and accusations are misused, and they are bad even if used as intended,” Marshall said. “They are vague, and are frequently used against dissenters and critics of dominant religious and political views. Most of their use is against anyone accused of criticizing Islam.”

Bruno Jerup, a spokesman on church issues for the Denmark's Red-Green Alliance political party, characterized the Danish law as “an unnecessary narrowing of freedom of speech” that “sends the wrong signal to the world that it is acceptable to be punished for criticizing God and religions,” the Copenhagen Post reports.

The Danish People's Party had also supported repealing the law, while the Social Democrats were supportive of the legislation.

In the history of the law, only eight cases were brought under it. Only two sets of convictions have resulted. A 1938 conviction punished four people who hanged up public posters and printed in newspapers mockeries of Jewish belief. In 1946, two people were convicted for mock-baptizing a doll during a masked ball in Copenhagen.

The law was dropped in response to charges filed earlier this year against a man who in 2015 burned a copy of the Quran and posted the video to Facebook. The accused could have faced a sentence of up to four months in prison, but the prosecutor sought only a fine. His trial had been scheduled for June.

While Marshall said he would agree with some opposition to blasphemy, he opposed criminalization, saying that “dragging the modern state into the matter increases hostility and will not have the desired effect.”

He said the repeal of the Danish law would probably have little effect around the world. Some might take it as a sign that they should ease anti-blasphemy laws, while others “would be outraged that a man burned a Quran and was unpunished.”

In some countries such laws “tend to lead to mob and vigilante violence – which is a far greater threat to those accused than is state action.”

Marshall cited the case of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and former governor of Jakarta more commonly known as Ahok, who last month was sentenced to two years in jail for criminal blasphemy in Indonesia. Ahok denied the charge, saying Islamic hardliners’ edited version of his speech wrongly triggered the charges alongside mass protests.

Ahok's speech accused some of his opponents for misusing a Quran verse to trick people into voting against him.

Marshall was also critical of hate speech laws in Denmark and elsewhere.  

One such law was used in the case against Lars Hedegaard, a Danish Marxist historian and journalist who has made strong criticisms of Islam. In 2011 he was fined on evidence of a recording of his remarks at home which criticized Islamic society, including claims of familial rape. The fine was thrown out in a 2013 decision by the Danish Supreme Court.

“In practice these function as quasi-blasphemy laws, or are ways of silencing unpopular views,” Marshall said.

“I would like to see these ‘hate speech’ laws repealed as well, for the reasons just mentioned, but also because they don't work – they increase conflict and hatred, not diminish it.”

Tags: Freedom of speech

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