Ranked No. 1 in the World Justice Project’s 2016 Rule of Law Index® and given a “free press” status by Freedom House, Denmark is often looked to as a progressive beacon of free thought. Yet until June 3, the country upheld a provision criminalizing “any person who, in public, ridicules or insults the dogmas or worship of any lawfully existing religious community,” also known as “the blasphemy provision.”
No one has been convicted on account of blasphemy charges in Denmark since 1946, despite reported cases of public blasphemy against Christianity and Islam. But this February, a regional prosecutor decided to revive the ban by charging a man for sharing a video of himself burning a Quran on Facebook. The charge prompted Denmark’s socialist Red-Green Alliance to table a bill proposing a repeal of the blasphemy provision. A sustained campaign by Atlas Network partner Justitia to repeal section 140 of the Danish penal code ensued.
Initially the bill looked set for defeat, as the coalition government was split and both the Social Democrats and center-left party The Alternative announced their opposition. Encouraged by Justitia, however, The Alternative invited Justitia Executive Director Jacob Mchangama and the editor of Christian Daily to debate for and against repeal, respectively. Following the debate, 69 percent of The Alternative members voted in favor of repeal. Yet the largest party in the government — the Liberal Party — remained opposed.
Justitia persuaded a number of international nongovernmental organizations including Freedom House, Amnesty International, Article 19 and International Press Institute to issue statements in favor of repeal, and also initiated and drafted a petition including the signatures of more than 50 international authors such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Pascal Bruckner, Steven Pinker, Gregg Lukianoff, Suzanne Nossel and Nadine Strossen. These initiatives, as well as numerous op-eds, media appearances and conversations with decision-makers, helped galvanize opinion and on June 1, the Liberal Party announced that it would vote in favor of repeal. On June 3, the Danish parliament (Folketinget) voted to repeal the ban.
“The abolishment of the blasphemy ban should be seen as a repudiation of the ‘Jihadist’s Veto’ that has 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,” asserted Mchangama. “Trying to appease extremists through compromising fundamental freedoms of expression and equality not only is misguided, but also legitimizes the intolerance that lies behind the enforcement of draconian blasphemy laws.”
The many religious minorities, atheists, skeptics and freethinkers around the world who languish in jail or live in constant fear look to liberal democracies to side with freedom and advance the cause of tolerance. By abolishing its blasphemy ban, Denmark has sent a clear message that it stands with the victims, and not the enforcers, of blasphemy laws.