Anti-Muslim nationalism is blazing in Denmark. Parliament has discussed banning prayer rooms in schools and universities. The right-wing and nationalist Danish People’s Party, now the second-largest party in Parliament, is calling for immigrants to celebrate Christmas to prove their Danishness. To reinforce Danish culture and custom, the town of Randers has asked cafeterias in public schools to serve pork.
Most recently, a man was charged last month with blasphemy for posting a video of a burning Quran on Facebook back in 2015 — a charge that hadn’t been prosecuted since 1971.
This case in particular is emblematic of how misguided the debate about Islam here has become. Everyone’s behavior in this story is problematic: the man who burned the Quran, the prosecutor who charged him with blasphemy and the free-speech advocates railing against the charges.
Denmark is not alone in experiencing a rise in nativism; the current runs throughout Europe and America. Denmark has suffered comparatively little from Islamist terrorism, and a vast majority of Danes report feeling safe. But discomfort with Islam has run deep for over a decade, especially after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, triggering a violent backlash in several countries.
Since then, free speech has become both the banner issue and a cover for anti-Muslim sentiment. At the forefront of that movement is the Danish People’s Party, which was a firm supporter of Jyllands-Posten during the cartoon crisis. Several members of the parties in the current coalition government have expressed similar concerns. The Social Democrats, the main opposition party, which historically opposed the right’s anti-immigration policies, has now declared an alliance with the Danish People’s Party. Nye Borgerlige, a new party that is even more to the right, is making its way into Parliament.
The act of burning a religious text held in high regard by 1.6 billion Muslims around the globe cannot be criticized enough. It is much more than a provocation; it is the expression of a hateful political agenda. Although Islam should be subject to critique, like any other issue, the criticism often masks an ugly form of nationalism, which threatens to entrench divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
On the other hand, curtailing free speech is the wrong way to combat sectarianism.
The recent blasphemy case is especially troubling. The charge hadn’t been invoked in decades, and this instance seems like a very selective application of the law: An artist who burned a Bible on live television in 1997 wasn’t prosecuted. A number of former members of Parliament have also been convicted of hate speech, including for comparing Muslims to Hitler or claiming that Muslim fathers kill their own daughters.
The Free Press Society, the largest free-speech organization in Denmark, was founded largely by notable members of the Danish People’s Party and other public critics of Islam, including the caricaturist Lars Hedegaard, who has said that Muslims rape their daughters. But even as the group argues that anti-blasphemy laws undercut free speech, it wants to stop imams from advocating Shariah law, among other things. Under the guise of protecting civil liberties, nationalists are hijacking free speech to target minorities.
Yet regulating speech to stem extremist sentiments is no answer either. It will only reinforce the nationalists’ claim that they are the true defenders of people’s liberties against the oppression of political correctness by the elite. And even narrow restrictions on speech set a dangerous precedent: They can be turned into a terrific tool to suppress other political and religious views.
After Mr. Hedegaard was shot at in 2013, various Muslim groups spoke out against the attack and defended his right to express his views, no matter how offensive to them. That position — full openness, not regulation — is the best way forward, and it’s inspiring that Muslim groups that have been targeted verbally, and perhaps insulted, are making the case. Too bad there aren’t more politicians who seem ready to do the same.
Rasmus Brygger is a columnist for the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet and former president of Danish Liberal Alliance Youth.