January 27, 2023. Far-right Swedish-Danish Rasmus Paludan burns a Koran in front of a mosque in Copenhagen, then in front of the Turkish embassy. The gesture provokes the fury of Ankara and many capitals of the Muslim world. Several demonstrations took place in Pakistan and Afghanistan, bringing together tens of thousands of people. In Iraq, demonstrators attempt to attack the Danish embassy in Baghdad.
In reaction to these events, the Danish government presented, on August 25, a bill aimed at banning the burning of religious books, and in particular the Koran. Very controversial, it was modified at the end of October and must be examined this Tuesday, November 14 in Parliament.
The main objective of this text is to prohibit “the inappropriate treatment of scriptures of significant religious significance for a religious community”. In other words, it is a question of preventing the material desecration, by burning or even trampling, of a Koran, a Bible or a Torah. However, it is clarified that religious works of art such as crosses or menorahs will not be covered by the ban. In addition, “verbal or written” blasphemy, in particular caricatures, will not be affected by this law, according to the Danish authorities who did not provide further details.
Legal experts had spotted an “anomaly” in the first version of the text, which suggested that anyone expressing support for a book burning would also be punished criminally. The amended bill now specifies that tolerating “inappropriate treatment of religious scriptures” will not constitute a criminal offense. Finally, the text of the law is limited to religious communities which are recognized by the State (Christian denominations - Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Orthodox - Jewish and Muslim). In its first version, the text wanted to include unrecognized religious communities.
The bill provides for penalties of up to two years in prison. However, the government proposes that the first offense be punished with a fine. The Danish authorities intend to include this law in chapter 12 of the Penal Code dedicated to national security.
The bill was received very coldly by the Danish population. Multiple voices were raised against a law that "let his country and his people down", according to Marie Hogh, columnist for the liberal Danish daily Jyllands-Posten who became known for the controversy after the publication of the caricatures of Mohammed in 2005-2006. She even adds that this bill is “a step in the right direction for the propagation of Sharia law and a step backwards for a free and democratic society.”
The Danish government, however, assures that there is no question of literally reactivating the offense of blasphemy, repealed six years ago. In June 2017, the kingdom's deputies voted mainly in favor of the deletion of article 140 of the Penal Code, adopted in 1866. This article 140 opposed the directives of the United Nations and the Council of Europe, who view blasphemy laws as an impediment to freedom of expression.
It was the affair of the caricatures of Mohammed which relaunched the debate on the legitimacy of article 140. Denmark was caught in one of the most serious crises in its contemporary history, with the publication of twelve caricatures of the prophet Mahomet in the pages of Jyllands-Posten. These caricatures triggered a tidal wave of protests in the Arab-Muslim world. Several thousand Muslims demonstrated and eleven ambassadors from Muslim countries asked to be received by the Danish Prime Minister, who refused their requests. The Danish public prosecutor's office was contacted, but found that the twelve drawings of the Prophet Muhammad did not constitute blasphemy.
The bill presented at the end of August, in addition to bringing back bad memories, is perceived by many Danish media as “ambiguous”. Pierre Collignon, editor-in-chief of the center-right daily Berlingske, raises the question of artists' freedom. “Now, artistic depictions escape the ban if the inappropriate action that may be included constitutes a minor part of the work. But when is it a smaller part?,” he asks. In a sharper editorial, the Jyllands-Posten asserts that “the government is contorting itself” to try to avoid “admitting that it is bowing – which is completely unprecedented – to the demands of foreign powers on issues which affect the structure of Danish legislation.