On Tuesday, November 14, the Danish Parliament studied at first reading a bill banning the burning of the Koran. This project aims to modify the Penal Code by criminalizing “dealing inappropriately, publicly or with the intention of disseminating to a wider circle, a text having important religious significance for a recognized religious community”, explained the Folketinget, the Danish Parliament, on its website. It is also specified that any offender will face a penalty of two years of imprisonment.
Denmark wants to limit protests involving desecration of the Koran
This bill was introduced following desecration of the holy book of Islam: according to figures from the national police, 483 book burnings and flag burnings were recorded in Denmark between July 21 and October 24, 2023.
Opponents of the bill strongly denounce the restrictions on freedom of expression that may result from it. “Freedom of expression – including the freedom to mistreat religious objects, however crude that may be as a form of protest – is a vital cornerstone of free societies,” can we read in a petition, published on September 15 and signed by a multitude of local and international personalities. The signatories fear, moreover, a possible return of the offense of blasphemy, a 334-year-old provision which punished public insults towards religions, repealed in Denmark six years ago.
Tour of Europe on the offense of blasphemy
The wave of indignation over the first proposed text communicated at the end of August was such that the bill was subject to modifications before being presented to Parliament. As a result, the bill, which was initially intended to cover desecration of all objects of significant religious significance, now specifically covers “the inappropriate treatment of scriptures with important religious significance”explained the Ministry of Justice in a press release at the end of October.
Respond to the security injunction
If the Danish government is seeking to legislate on the burning of the Koran, it is because they have led to an increase in security tensions. In Iraq, for example, hundreds of demonstrators supporting the influential religious leader Moqtada Sadr attempted to march towards the Danish embassy in Baghdad at the end of July. Peter Hummelgaard, Danish Minister of Justice, also specified in a press release: “ The terrorist threat against Denmark following the recent Quran burnings has further increased from an already high level. (…) This is why the government is taking action against systematic acts of insults and denigration, which aim only to provoke division and which have consequences for the security of Denmark and the Danes. »
Danish consulate and embassy burned
“The only reason we are doing this is out of fear of terrorists and diplomatic pressure from Islamic states,” laments the Danish lawyer who initiated the petition, Jacob Mchangama, contacted by La Croix. He considers, in the petition in question, that his country demonstrates “a lack of solidarity with other democratic countries that have chosen not to compromise their fundamental values despite the threats against their citizens and institutions that have been an all-too-frequent feature of democracies since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1988.”
“We cannot condition the exercise of a freedom on the fact that the adversaries of this freedom use violent acts. It would be a total aberration and a challenge to democratic principles,” supports Nicolas Hervieu, lawyer in European human rights law.
A bill contrary to freedom of expression?
Whatever the initial motive, could this new criminal offense, if adopted, be considered contrary to freedom of expression by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)?
According to the much cited Handyside decree (December 7, 1976), the ECHR specifies that freedom of expression applies to all ideas, even “those which offend, shock or worry the State or any section of the population. » However, this does not mean everything.
“It all depends on the context and the intention”, specifies Nicolas Hervieu. “If book burning, for example, is committed for the purpose of denouncing the place of Islam in society, this falls within the scope of democratic debate, even if it may offend,” he illustrates. However, if the action aims to gratuitously attack the religious feelings of people or to insult a believer by name, this does not fall within the admissible limits of freedom of expression.
Éric Zemmour dismissed by the ECHR after his conviction for provoking hatred
Therefore, if the ECHR were to be seized, there is a good chance that it would consider the Danish bill to be contrary to freedom of expression. All this depends on the final text and the conditions of application of this law.
However, adoption of the text is more than likely to date. After this first reading, the text must still be studied in committee then submitted to two additional readings before the vote, but the left-center-liberal coalition government has a majority in Parliament.