Everyone should have the right to insult Islam
No religion, idea, prophet or god should be protected from ridicule.
It might soon be illegal in Denmark to make fun of Islam. Seriously. In response to a spate of Koran burnings – in both Denmark and its neighbour, Sweden – the Danish foreign ministry has issued an extraordinary statement. A statement that should chill the blood of all who believe in free speech. The state might soon have to start intervening, it said, in situations where ‘other countries, cultures and religions are being insulted’. In short, a Dane’s right to mock all nations, gods, prophets and ideas might have to be sacrificed at the altar of protecting people’s feelings. This represents a deadly blow to freedom of expression.
The foreign ministry’s statement comes in the wake of numerous acts of Koran desecration in the Nordic countries. Both right-wing agitators and ex-Muslims have been setting copies of the Koran aflame. The most recent ‘blasphemous’ strike took place outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm on Monday, in the pouring rain, where an Iraqi refugee and his friend trampled on a copy of the Koran and then ripped out some pages and set them on fire. They did the same outside Stockholm’s largest mosque in June. In Denmark last week, two far-right activists destroyed copies of the Koran outside the Turkish and Egyptian embassies in Copenhagen. Putting a match to Islam’s holy book has become quite the fad in certain Nordic circles.
And the leaders of Sweden and Denmark are panicking. They’ve received a wave of hate from Muslim countries. Turkey is threatening to stall Sweden’s entry into NATO until it shows ‘respect to [Muslims’] religious beliefs’. Muslim leaders have damned the Swedes and Danes for their profanity. Their embassies have been stormed in Iraq. Feeling the heat – no pun intended – Denmark is essentially offering to appease this Islamist fury by making it a crime to insult Islam’s sacred text. It is hard to think of anything more craven than a democratic nation restricting the rights of its own citizens to placate the wrath of foreign tyrants.
Strikingly, the Danes are not only looking into how to ‘stop protests involving the burning of holy texts’. No, it is ridicule of ‘countries, cultures and religions’ more broadly that they’re promising to police. Especially if the ridicule could have ‘negative consequences for Denmark, not least with regard to security’. Think about what is being said here. If an individual threatens to make an extreme or fiery comment about a nation or a faith that could prove awkward for the Danish government, then that individual might have to be silenced. Sweden says it shares ‘the same analysis’.
Denmark and Sweden are allowing themselves to be held hostage by Islamist leaders. Indeed, the Swedish PM’s comments about the ‘dangerous situation’ created by Koran burnings followed hot on the heels of a furious statement from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The OIC, which represents 48 Muslim-majority countries, slammed the recent Koran burnings as ‘despicable acts of aggression’ and demanded that the UN intervene. Sanctions against Sweden, perhaps? A peacekeeping force deployed to Copenhagen to protect the Koran from Danes’ grubby hands?
It will be a dark day for freedom in Europe if Sweden and Denmark restrict their citizens’ free expression in order to protect the feelings of Islamists. This would elevate the Muslim world’s emotions over Danes’ and Swedes’ freedom. Worse, it would give the Muslim world a veto over speech in parts of Europe. Islamic leaders would feel emboldened to threaten any nation that permitted its citizens to engage in ‘blasphemous’ speech, whether the threat took the form of exclusion from NATO, a telling-off from the UN or mob gatherings in the streets.
The Koran-burning controversy actually handed Denmark and Sweden a great opportunity to signal to the world, and their own people, that they will defend freedom in the face of any external menace. But they fluffed it. Instead they have advertised the flimsiness of their belief in liberty; their willingness to subjugate their own citizens’ fundamental rights of expression, dissent and, yes, blasphemy to the jealous demands of offended foreign leaders.
In a way, Denmark and Sweden, if they act on their promise to ‘do something’ about intense insults against Islam, will only be codifying the attitude of the entire modern West. Woke appeasement of Islamocensorship has been around for years. The very idea of ‘Islamophobia’ sends the message that criticism of Islam is a kind of malady, a sick bigotry. People in the UK have lost their jobs for mocking Islam. People in France have been taken to court. A British schoolteacher was hounded into hiding for supposedly ‘blaspheming’ against Muhammad. A schoolteacher in France was beheaded for that ‘crime’. And of course we all live in the shadow of that gravest assault on liberty and Enlightenment: the massacre at Charlie Hebdo.
For Denmark and Sweden to even consider restricting mockery of Islam in such a moment is disgraceful. Not only are they threatening to sacrifice their own constitutional commitment to free speech – they are also inflaming the expectation of Islamists that any speech that offends them will be crushed, or else.
Criticism of religion should never be punished. Not even burnings of the Koran. I never like to see a book on fire, be it the Koran, The Satanic Verses, Harry Potter or whatever. Book-burning, we know from history, is never a good thing. But the right to burn books is one we must defend. Destroying a book can be an act of expression as much as writing a book is. I find the idea of a government trampling on the speech rights of its citizens far more offensive than protesters trampling on a copy of the Koran. It’s the bonfire of the liberties, not the occasional burning of a religious text, that should horrify us.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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