, Denmark’s Folketing – their Parliament – voted 75–27 to abolish Section 140 of their Penal Code: the blasphemy law.
With this action, Denmark has become the fifth country in Europe to abolish their blasphemy law since 2015.
- Norway technically voted against their blasphemy law in 2009. However, although the law was removed from the 2005 Penal Code, it remained the 1902 Penal Code that is still used in actual practice as a zombie law – dead, but not really dead. Norway closed that loophole in 2015 as a direct response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
- The Netherlands was flirting with the idea of repealing their blasphemy law for a decade, but couldn’t manage it because Christian parties had too much power. There hadn’t been an attempt to use it since 1966, in a case involving a story about gay-fucking God who had taken the form of a donkey. Glorious. After the 2012 election handed a massive smack down to religious parties, the new grand coalition government got in gear and repealed the blasphemy law by 2013, with it officially taking effect in 2014. (They did leave the door open to re-enacting a new blasphemy law. And after the recent election, the balance of power has shifted toward Christian parties again. We’re still waiting to hear what the new government will look like, or if another election will have to be called.)
- Iceland repealed its blasphemy law in 2015, an initiative famously spearheaded by the Pirate Party (Píratar), and explicitly in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
- Malta abolished its blasphemy law in 2016, and Malta is a special case, because unlike in most other European jurisdictions, their blasphemy law was very much live and in use. There were 99 convictions between January and September in 2012, and 112 between January and July in 2011. Even today, Malta is still very much under the yoke of Catholicism, though it is making slow progress out of the dark ages.
- Also worth noting is the Alsace-Moselle region of France. France itself abolished its blasphemy laws in 1881, but at the time, what is now Alsace-Moselle was then the Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine, which the German Empire had annexed in 1871 after winning the Franco–Prussian War. It reverted to France after WWⅠ, but retained special privilege to local law, which really only affected the stuff that differed between German and French law between 1871 and 1919… which included the 1881 blasphemy law repeal. They finally caught up to the rest of France in that regard in 2016.
The Danish blasphemy law has its roots going back to 1683. At that time, they were trying to codify existing law, but in the process they added stuff… including the blasphemy law. It was added in Book 6 of the Danish law, Chapter 1, Provisions 7 and 8, and it made blasphemy a capital offence. There’s no record of anyone actually being executed over it, though.
In 1866, inspired by the Enlightenment, Denmark created its first modern Criminal Code. Unfortunately, it included a blasphemy law. In the early 1900s, Denmark was once again looking to modernize its Criminal Code, and, remarkably, at first they weren’t going to include a blasphemy law. Unfortunately, the early drafts without the blasphemy law didn’t pass, and a blasphemy law was added at some point. It seems to been added mostly unchanged from the 1866 law, modulo some technical amendments, one of which removed the outlawing of privately-made blasphemy. (So after 1930, only public blasphemy was illegal.) The blasphemy law was now Section 140 of the Criminal Code:
Den, der offentlig driver spot med eller forhåner noget her i landet lovligt bestående religionssamfunds troslærdomme eller gudsdyrkelse, straffes med bøde eller fængsel indtil 4 måneder.
[Indi’s translation:] Anyone who publicly mocks or insults the beliefs or practice of any lawfully existing religious community in this country shall be punished with fines or imprisonment for up to 4 months.
The last certainly successful application of the blasphemy law was in 1946. It was a conviction of a man for dressing up as a priest and performing a “baptism” of a doll at a masquerade party. Prior to 2017 (more on that in a moment), it was last used in 1971, in a case involving a pair of who broadcast a song on public radio mocking Christianity, about a woman’s right to refuse sexual advances from deities. Some sources I’ve read say they were convicted, others say they were acquitted.
Either way, the 1971 case seems to have inspired the earliest calls for its abolition. At the time it was noted that the law had only been used three times – and only twice successfully. But the proposal didn’t gain any traction in their Parliament, and was shelved and forgotten. It came up again in 2002, when a committee recommended reviewing various sections of the Criminal Code, including Section 140.
But no one really took the issue seriously until the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh. For those who don’t remember, van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker who – working with Ayaan Hirsi Ali – produced a film called Submission, which featured a nearly-naked woman with Quran verses on her beaten body. It was shown on Dutch public television, sparking an outcry. Van Gogh was murdered by an extremist, who left a death threat to Hirsi Ali pinned to the body with a knife.
That incident prompted some proposals to abolish the blasphemy law, but it never really went anywhere. Not until a couple years later, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons of Muhammad.
The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy began as a legitimate journalistic experiment to test whether Danish journalists felt pressured to self-censorship out of fear of offending Muslims. But at some point, the editors realized the experiment was silly and proved nothing (retrospective assessments suggest that the experiment actually proved Danish journalists don’t feel pressured to self-censor), so instead they turned it into an editorial piece, which they published on .
The result was… chaos. There were massive protests all across the world – particularly in Muslim countries – with multiple people killed. A number of the cartoonists involved were forced into hiding – famously, Kurt Westergaard was attacked in his home by an axe-wielding Muslim, and only survived by escaping into his panic room… while his 5 year-old granddaughter was left outside with the axe-man. A small French satirical magazine by the name of Charlie Hebdo caught the attention of Muslim extremists by republishing the cartoons in solidarity… and we all know what happened to them.
There was talk at the time of charging Jyllands-Posten under the blasphemy law, but none of the efforts went anywhere. Yet even all of this, while it certainly put the blasphemy law on notice, wasn’t quite enough to spark its repeal.
What finally did it was an incident earlier this year involving a man who burned a Quran and then posted it on Facebook. The man gave the video a title hinting that burning a Quran was similar to burning garbage or shit (“it stinks when it burns”), and posted it to a Facebook group devoted to hating on Islam. In response, for the first time since the 1970s case, Denmark’s blasphemy law was used to charge someone.
That finally provoked action. The recent flurry of blasphemy law news – featuring Stephen Fry and the Irish blasphemy law, and the conviction of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (aka “Ahok”) in Indonesia for blasphemy in a fairly blatant political charge – probably helped. After only three months, the Danish Folketing got their shit together, and repealed Section 140. The charges against the Quran-burner will be dropped.
So congratulations to Denmark for taking this step out of the Dark Ages, and into the modern era!
What’s the takeaway for us Canucks, though?
Well, as I’ve noted several times, the best way to get a blasphemy law abolished is to try to use it. It’s shameful that our blasphemy law lingers because our prosecutors are too craven to use it when they technically should. People shouldn’t be able to ignore Canadian laws when they are embarrassing or inconvenient… or when they might reflect badly on your case victory statistics. When it comes to laws, the rule should be “use it or lose it”; if it’s never going to be used, it shouldn’t be on the books… but of course, if it’s never going to be used, politicians don’t feel any pressure to repeal it.
However, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has promised a review of the blasphemy law, and the more countries that abolish it, the more pressure there is on Canada to step up.