It isn’t free speech that causes violence – it’s censorship

Denmark’s ban on burning the Koran will embolden some of the most regressive elements in Europe.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech Politics World

So it is now against the law in Denmark to treat the Koran ‘improperly’. Anyone who inflicts ‘inappropriate treatment’ on a copy of Islam’s holy book – whether by stomping on it, ripping it to shreds or setting it on fire – could be fined or even jailed for two years. This is a travesty for liberty. It is a stain on the good name of Scandinavia. Denmark joins Iran, Afghanistan and other theocratic tyrannies as a nation where you might be made to rot in a cell simply for insulting a religion.

The new law, passed on Thursday, doesn’t specifically mention the Koran. Instead it makes it a crime to ‘inappropriately treat, publicly or with the intention of dissemination in a wider circle, a writing with significant religious significance for a religious community’. But we all know what ‘writing’ is being referred to here. We all know it isn’t fiery abuse of L Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics or Buddhism’s Tripitaka scriptures that the Danish state is worried about. It’s Koran-burning. The justice minister was candid. ‘Koran-burnings must be stopped’, he said on Instagram the day the law was passed. Ignore the law’s slippery chat about protecting all sacred texts from violation – this is a law expressly designed to shield Islam from blasphemy.

Denmark and Sweden have witnessed numerous Koran-burnings recently. Far-right agitators as well as ex-Muslims have set fire to copies in Copenhagen, Stockholm and elsewhere. And the reaction from Muslim-majority nations has been ferocious. There were angry protests in Baghdad. Iran summoned Danish and Swedish diplomats in Tehran to give them a dressing down. Turkey threatened to block Sweden’s entry to NATO until it showed ‘respect to [Muslims’] religious beliefs’. In short, bow to our faith or you will be punished. Take the knee to our ideology or suffer the consequences.

Now, Denmark has capitulated. It has sought to appease the muftis and mobs of distant regimes by forbidding the desecration of their holy texts. It has restricted the liberty of its own citizens to placate theocrats in other lands. The more you think about it, the more surreal it gets. It’s almost like a soft colonisation, with Denmark meekly introducing the blasphemy laws of nations like Iran to try to avoid further protest and rebuke. ‘This law is introduced out of necessity, not out of desire’, said one Danish politician, speaking to the spineless nature of what Denmark has done – namely, mimicked the intolerance of its critics in the hope they will now leave it alone.

Yet if Denmark does win brief respite from Islamist bullying, it will have done so at a staggeringly high price: freedom itself. For make no mistake, outlawing the burning of the Koran is a flagrant assault on free expression. Personally, I never like to see a book on fire. One cannot help but think of the bleakest decades of the 20th century when a match is put to a book. But freedom of speech must include the freedom to blaspheme. To mock gods, prophets, bibles. To lampoon Muhammad, put a likeness of Christ in piss. To call bullshit on anything and everything. Yes, some will feel offended, but that’s an infinitesimally small price to pay for the preservation of everyone else’s right to think and speak as they see fit. Free speech is not just for the erudite but also for the impolitic, the cantankerous, the wind-up merchants. Outlawing Koran-burning should offend us as profoundly as outlawing the writing of poetry would – in both cases the liberty to utter is restricted.

Few, I know, will feel sympathy for hard-right troublemakers who’ll no longer be able to burn a Koran in Denmark. But what about ex-Muslims, or ‘apostates’, as Islamic states call them? Some of the Koran-burnings in Scandinavia have been carried out by immigrants from Muslim lands who’ve abandoned their Islamic faith. They feel fury towards a religion they now consider unjust and unfair. If Denmark imprisons an ‘apostate’ for publicly desecrating the Koran, it will be no better than Iran, where apostasy is likewise punishable by jail. Iranian dissidents might once have looked to a nation like Denmark for refuge. No longer. Now they know they risk severe punishment there, too, if they demean Islam’s holy text. For shame.

The enormity of what Denmark has done was summed up by Nina Palesa Bonde, a deputy judge in the Copenhagen District Court and one of hundreds of Danish intellectuals to sound the alarm about the new law. ‘Normally, the law protects people, not religion, ideology or God himself’, she said. Indeed. Six years ago, Denmark ditched its 334-year-old blasphemy law on the basis that ‘religion should not dictate what is allowed and what is forbidden to say publicly’. Yet now it has resurrected blasphemy law in the sneaky language of political correctness. Once again, religion – well, Islam – is dictating what may and may not be said. We are protecting in law a book that is ‘used as a death sentence for women, Jews and homosexuals in many countries’, said Ms Bonde. If that doesn’t give Danes pause for thought, nothing will.

One of the key arguments made by the officials who pushed through this medieval law in woke garb is that Denmark must do everything it can to protect itself from violence. This law is necessary because ‘the terrorist threat level against Denmark is alarmingly high’, said one politician. That is a horrifying thing to say. It essentially grants terrorists a veto over liberty, law itself, in the state of Denmark. It offers up Denmark’s longstanding principle of free expression as a bargaining chip with terrorists. It says, ‘If we ban blasphemy, if we jail those who offend you, will you let us live in peace?’. This isn’t only cowardly – it’s dangerous. It sends a signal to terrorists that threats work, violence works. Threaten the nations of Europe and they will abandon their principles, including freedom.

This does the opposite of pacifying the violent – it emboldens them. It gives them an almost despotic power over the laws and rights of a free nation. It moulds Denmark around their reactionary beliefs rather than around the freeborn rights of the Danish people. In fact, it’s an incitement to violence. Denmark’s ruling class says burning a Koran incites violence, but their horrific new law is far more likely to do that. For it communicates to every Islamist on Earth that if you want concessions from Denmark, if you want this once proud nation to jettison its principles and beliefs, if you want it to reinstate the blasphemy laws it only recently demolished – only this time to protect Islam rather than Christianity – then all you need to do is threaten it with violence. ‘Terrorism works’ – that’s what Denmark has said to the world.

Here we can glimpse an eternal truth of censorship: it is the midwife of violence. So often today we’re told that free speech causes violence. That the utterance of offensive ideas is likely to whip up mobs. In truth, censorship is a far more comfortable bedfellow of savagery than freedom could ever be. For censorship tells certain groups that their beliefs are so perfect, so pristine, so beyond the scurrilous commentary of mere mortals, that those who dissent from them are deserving of punishment. Censorship begets intolerance. In forcefielding certain ideologies from criticism, it incites the adherents to those ideologies to seek out and ‘discipline’ the filth that dare to dissent.

Consider the Charlie Hebdo massacre, or the beheading of Samuel Paty, or the stabbing of Salman Rushie. The problem in those cases was not the freely uttered views of the attacked but the violent sensitivities of their attackers. The problem was not Charlie Hebdo’s, Monsieur Paty’s and Mr Rushdie’s expectation of freedom, but their tormentors’ expectation of protection from offence. The apocalyptic violence of those attacks sprung not from the principle of free expression but from censorship’s depraved incitement to intolerance, its instilling in people’s minds of the backward idea that anyone who offends them deserves punishment. It wasn’t freedom of speech that drove the knife into Rushdie’s face and neck – it was a man’s lust for censorship.

Denmark has, in effect, hung a target sign around the necks of those who ‘blaspheme’ against the Koran. It has said they are such wicked people that they might even have to be imprisoned. It will not be able to feign shock if other elements in Denmark, and elsewhere in Europe, decide that harsher punishment might sometimes be required. Maybe even violent punishment. Pity the ‘apostates’ and dissenters – they always lose when censorship wins.

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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Topics Free Speech Politics World


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