August 1, 2023 - 10:30am

In 1766, Sweden enacted its landmark Press Freedom Act, becoming the first country in the world to implement such protections. In 1770, Denmark outpaced this achievement by formally abolishing all forms of censorship. Despite intermittent setbacks, these pioneering acts cultivated a vibrant culture of free expression. The Scandinavian countries evolved into global symbols of democracy, freedom, equality and prosperity, underpinned by socially liberal and secular values. However, on Sunday Denmark and Sweden undermined these core values by yielding to pressure from some of the world’s most politically authoritarian and religiously oppressive states.

Danish Foreign Minister Lars LĂžkke Rasmussen stated that the Danish government would seek to enact legislation for “special situations where other countries, cultures, and religions could be insulted, potentially resulting in significant negative consequences for Denmark”. Sweden is considering similar measures. This rapid move to curtail free expression comes in response to a ragtag group of far-Right extremists in Denmark and an Iraqi immigrant in Sweden publicly burning Qurans.

There can be no doubt that book burnings are crude, deliberately provocative, and a poor substitute for reasoned debate. But when conducted by private individuals, they serve as non-violent symbolic expressions intended to convey a message — the essence of free expression. The appropriate response to such provocations is counter-speech or indifference. In fact, in July an Iranian citizen burned not only the flags of Denmark and Sweden, but also the Bible and the Torah in front of the Israeli embassy in Copenhagen, praising Ayatollah Khomeini in the process. This act was largely met with apathy from the Danish populace.

However, as Denmark discovered after a newspaper published cartoons of Muhammed in 2005, offending Islam is a high-risk venture. Indeed, the reaction to the Scandinavian Quran burnings has been intense. Turkey, for example, withheld approval of Sweden’s Nato membership for months. In Baghdad, the Swedish embassy was attacked by protestors, and the ambassador was expelled. A Danish NGO aiding refugees in Basra came under armed assault. The most coordinated pushback against Denmark and Sweden has come from the 57 member-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has long argued that insulting Islam equates to “hate speech”, prohibited under international human rights law.

The Danish government’s commitment to limit free speech was announced just a day before an OIC special session, intended to strategise a global ban on Quran burnings. Rasmussen even made a desperate phone call to the OIC to preemptively mitigate potential backlash. Regrettably for the Danish government, the organisation remained unappeased and released a strongly-worded statement admonishing Denmark and Sweden for failing to criminalise Quran burnings, pledging to pursue the matter further. The Turkish ambassador to Denmark also warned that the proposed Danish efforts were “insufficient”.

By yielding to the demands of the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the theocratic Shiite regime of Iran, Denmark and Sweden have validated the OIC’s approach, which relies on relentless diplomatic pressure and demands for concessions while offering nothing in return. As the OIC seizes this momentum, the cost to global free expression due to the feckless surrender of secular democracies is likely to be high.

Jacob Mchangama is the CEO of the Future of Free Speech Project, Research Professor at Vanderbilt University, and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. He is the author of Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media.

Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of the Copenhagen based think tank Justitia and author of Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media, publishing 17th March