Denmark recently adopted a law to ban inappropriate treatment of any writing or object with religious significance – a peace initiative in the best interests of a multicultural society. Azher Hameed Qamar sees this law as a step towards freedom of expression that will also help bridge social divides
Amid the debate on freedom of speech and Quran burning, the Danish parliament has legislated to prioritise international relations, internal security, and the best interests of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds in Denmark. The law, adopted 7 December 2023, makes it a criminal offence to treat inappropriately, or with intent to disseminate more widely, a writing with significance for a religious community, or an object that appears as such.
The law is the outcome of several debates on the multiple Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden that have raised security concerns and prompted diplomatic crises. Denmark has responded by enacting a law that respects the religious sensitivities of Muslims living in Denmark. Its move also appeases non-Muslims who believe that coexisting harmoniously is about respecting and accepting others.
The Nazis burned books to spread hatred and intolerance. Heinrich Heine's famous quote 'Those who burn books will, in the end, burn people' warns how the freedom to use expressions of hate may lead to social intolerance and, eventually, to hate crime. Book burning may simply be the first step to eliminating what we cannot accept.
Absolute freedom of speech allows extremists to advance their own interests
Denmark's new law goes some way to addressing this sensitivity. Yet the people politically opposed to it argue that its implementation curbs freedom of expression. What those people fail to see, however, is that extremists can exploit absolute freedom of speech to advance their own interests.
It is important to understand how freedom of speech may lead to freedom of expression to incite hatred. Hate speech includes all types of expression (in words, pictures, music) that target individuals, groups, or communities to express dislike and hatred. Absolute freedom of speech can compromise our moral and ethical responsibility to maintain respect for individuals, groups, and communities.
Hate speech is complex and multidimensional. The term covers a range of expressions that can provoke unrest, intolerance, and violence. If the hate speech is intended to humiliate and instil fear or rejection of individuals, groups, or communities, the state must understand and judge its severity. This, of course, is a sensitive job. There is a very fine line between freedom of speech and freedom to use hate speech.
In countries which enjoy free speech, citizens can communicate opinions, thoughts, and criticism of matters in the public interest. Freedom of speech also allows us to express disagreement. We can share our appraisals of religions, cultures, and beliefs. We can identify what belief practices may be harmful or damaging to human fundamental rights. However, expressions that foment anger among religious or ethnic groups – such as burning holy books – provoke insecurity and incite unrest.
It's a challenging task to distinguish between freedom of speech and freedom to use hate speech, but it can be done
Any expression, verbal or non-verbal, helps build our social world, and thus has human and moral value. But free speech may transcend moral and ethical boundaries when it incites hatred or hurts feelings. It's a challenging task to distinguish between freedom of speech and freedom to use hate speech. Nevertheless, the distinction can be defined and practiced with a shared understanding of the nature of the content (in speech, writing, and art) and its effect on social cohesion and inclusivity.
Freedom of speech should not violate the rights of others by inciting hatred against them. The state must thus legislate for freedom of speech that is in the collective public interest. As I see it, Denmark's ban on the burning of holy books is a peace initiative in the best interests of its people, regardless of their religious, ethnic, or political affiliations. The law signals a collective responsibility to work towards peace and togetherness.
Denmark's ban on the burning of holy books is in the best interests of its people, regardless of religious or political affiliations
International migration and internal displacements now mean that many more societies have become multicultural. It is thus imperative to think outside the box and draw a clear distinction between freedom of speech and freedom to use hate speech.
History shows us how absolute freedom of speech can have dire consequences. Sensible freedom of speech, on the other hand, fosters social capital and enhances social well-being. To live well together, we should connect diversity to strengthen collective well-being. Communicative ‘expressions’, if they are founded on human values and moral principles, can indeed bridge social divides.