Tension is growing in Sweden and Denmark, and in much of the Muslim world, because of recent public burnings of the Qur’an in those two European nations. The burnings sparked furious protests in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and other Middle East countries. Sweden and Denmark denounced the burnings as reprehensible but stressed that such actions are protected by free speech laws.
Four days ago, however, the Danish government announced plans for what can be called an anti‐blasphemy law. Improper treatment of the Qur’an or Bible, Justice Minister Peter Hummelgaard said, would constitute a criminal offense punishable by a fine and a jail sentence of up to two years.
Many Muslims may welcome this as good news, thinking that the Danish government is finally showing proper respect to the Qur’an. But as a Muslim who also deeply respects the Qur’an, I think differently.
My first reason is about the very notion of blasphemy and the right way to counter it. I have no doubt that burning a scripture is a deeply offensive act that deserves moral condemnation. I also think it only reveals the crudeness of the blasphemer: if he had a real argument against that scripture — or any book — he could put it in words. Burning books, instead of criticizing them, is what barbarians do.
However, condemning blasphemy is one thing; banning it is another. And as I have argued elsewhere, the Qur’an itself does not call for banning; it tells Muslims to respond to mockery of their religion by simply showing patience (3:186) and staying away (4:140). (Post-Qur’anic “Islamic law” does impose the death penalty on blasphemers, but this can be seen as a medieval vestige that Muslims can disavow, as I and some other Muslim scholars have argued.)
Second, Muslims should think about what they really achieve when blasphemy against Islam is banned, whether in Denmark or elsewhere. Does this make people in those countries respect Islam? I don’t think so, for the people who hate Islam (“Islamophobes”) will believe what they believe, and such bans will probably make them only more agitated.
Many other people will roll their eyes over a religion that they see as too thin‐skinned. Meanwhile, governments that ban anti‐Islam expressions will do this grudgingly, just to reduce the threats against the safety of their citizens, as the Danish justice minister explicitly noted.
Some Muslims may still see a victory in that, but I don’t. I don’t see any value in “respect for Islam” that is imposed with threats. Instead, respect for Islam, or any religion, should be cultivated through ethical behavior. And the latter includes dignity, instead of fury, in the face of offense.
Third, these blasphemy incidents in Europe — from cartoons of Prophet Muhammad to Qur’an burnings — seem to have made many Muslims averse to the very notion of freedom of speech. This freedom, they seem to think, only works for those who want to insult their religion. So, it better be curbed.
Yet that is not the case at all because freedom of speech not only allows offenses against a religion. It also allows the defense and the proclamation of that religion, which Muslims have been freely practicing in Western liberal democracies by opening mosques, publishing books, and gaining converts.
For example, just after the Qur’an burning incidents in Sweden, the Kuwaiti government announced it would distribute 100,000 copies of the Qur’an in Swedish — freely, and thanks to free speech. This would be unthinkable in authoritarian regimes with little free speech, such as China or North Korea.
That is also why a global shrinking of freedom of expression, which is a real concern, should concern Muslims, too. Because that shrinking includes the ridiculous French bans on Muslim dress codes, which are getting worse and worse.
It also includes a new ruling by the Brazilian Supreme Court that criminalizes “homophobic slurs,” a vague definition that could target people with traditional beliefs about human sexuality, which includes most Muslims.
If freedom of speech shrinks further in Europe, Muslims will find their own religious expressions banned, as the Islamophobes who want to ban the Qur’an — saying that it includes “hate speech” — seriously advocate.
In other words, freedom of speech is a crucial right that everybody — from the most secular to the most religious — retains in order to express themselves without fear. Therefore, I do not see more restrictions on speech as good news, even for ostensibly protecting the Qur’an.