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Business News/ Opinion / Denmark’s tragedy wasn’t caused by liberalism

Denmark’s tragedy wasn’t caused by liberalism

It's the country's conflicted approach to freedom of expression that demands closer scrutiny

Danish flags placed next to flowers as people gather for a memorial service held for those killed on Saturday by a 22-year-old gunman, in Copenhagen on 16 February 2015. Photo: ReutersPremium
Danish flags placed next to flowers as people gather for a memorial service held for those killed on Saturday by a 22-year-old gunman, in Copenhagen on 16 February 2015. Photo: Reuters

Last weekend’s shootings in Copenhagen are a test for Denmark. It’s tempting to argue that Denmark’s soft approach to dealing with radical Muslims has been found wanting. In truth, it’s the country’s conflicted approach to freedom of expression that demands closer scrutiny. In the wake of this year’s terror attacks on cartoonists who have mocked the Prophet Muhammad, what the West needs above all is clarity and simplicity in its policies dealing with integration and free speech.

As thousands of Danes laid flowers at the two sites where a lone gunman — named by the local press as 22-year-old Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein — shot a filmmaker and a synagogue guard and wounded several police officers, a few others brought their bouquets to the place cops shot El-Hussein himself. On that street in Norrebro, the area sometimes known in Copenhagen as “Little Arabia," one of the mourners told Danish TV2 it was unfair that cartoonists were allowed to “draw the prophet with a bomb on his head", while “when a brother puts a smiley face on Facebook, he’s a terrorist and he should be in prison."

This remark would ring true in France. After the deadly attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last month, the French government arrested 54 people for hate speech. The best- known of them, comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, was recently ordered to pay a $37,000 fine for “condoning terrorism" in a Facebook post that appeared to express solidarity both with the terrorists and their victims. This was clear evidence that France was willing to tolerate and defend Mohammad cartoons, which offend most Muslims, but not anti-Semitism, of which Dieudonne has been repeatedly guilty, or public apologies for Islamist terror. The French attitude toward hate speech is thus unapologetically selective. People who point out the contradictions are treated to lengthy explanations about how blasphemy shouldn’t be treated as hate speech in a secular country. Muslims might understandably reply that the offended party knows better what’s offensive and what isn’t.

Unlike France, Denmark has laws not only against hate speech but also against blasphemy. In several high-profile cases, however, the country has refused to apply them to anti-Muslim expression. When, in 2005, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 Muhammad cartoons, including one by Kurt Westergaard that depicted the prophet with a bomb on his head, Muslim organizations lodged a complaint with the prosecutor’s office but saw it dismissed on the grounds that the paper’s editorial freedom in matters of public interest justified the publication. Then, in 2012, the Supreme Court of Denmark acquitted Danish journalist Lars Hedegaard of hate speech. Hedegaard was initially ordered to pay a fine after a blogger reported that he had said that Islam permitted Muslim men to rape women. But he appealed the decision and the Supreme Court decided he was not guilty since he was not explicitly speaking for publication.

I can see how a Muslim might view these judicial decisions as unjust. On the other hand, the Danish government also doesn’t prosecute radical Islamists for their beliefs (much less smiley faces on Facebook). In fact, it has the world’s mildest attitude toward fighters returning from Syria’s battlefields. They aren’t prevented from entering the country; nor are they arrested, or even surveilled. Instead, they are offered public assistance to get job training.

Aarhus, the country’s second-biggest city, has 30 residents who fought in Syria, a third of the country’s total. A majority of them had attended a single radical mosque that openly supports Islamic State. Instead of closing it down or harassing its leaders, Danish police and local officials have been meeting with the returning fighters at the mosque to survey their feelings about being in Denmark again. The strategy has been to keep up a dialogue with the clerics and their flock to dissuade more people from going over to fight for the caliphate.

Denmark’s approach to integration allows most people, regardless of their religion or heritage, to pursue their own preferred way of life. Residents of Denmark — including Muslims -- generally appreciate this framework. In 2011, two Danish academics, Marco Goli and Shahamak Rezaei, conducted a survey to find out whether radical Islamist sentiment among young Muslims aged 15 to 30 was somehow correlated with the degree of their integration into Danish society. They found no meaningful connection: The 5.8% of their sample they identified as radical Islamists mostly spoke Danish at work or at school and had a higher proportion of Danish girlfriends and boyfriends than their less radicalized peers. The group was not overrepresented among the poor or educationally disadvantaged.

The radicals, however, appeared to be more sensitive to what they saw as discrimination, and they were more likely to have a history with the police. Goli and Rezaei could only conclude their stand was a matter of personal attitude and free choice, something for which the Danish culture has an ingrained respect. “The results from this study — while not supporting a link between migrant integration and radicalism — do appear to be quite compatible with the core liberal (in the non-partisan sense of that term) notion that for the individual, integration is a right, but not an obligation," the researchers wrote.

It’s understandable that attacks like those perpetrated by El-Hussein would give rise to discussions of how a country allowed them to happen. But I would argue that the Danish authorities did nothing wrong. No one would have benefited from more restrictions on Muslims, more police harassment, more attempts to force radicals to become assimilated or leave. A lone wolf terrorist can evade the most severe government dragnet.

In fact, Denmark would have done well to repeal its blasphemy and hate speech laws, since they are barely used against anyone, anyway. They only create confusion and suspicion, while a simple and clear policy of absolute freedom of speech would be easy to explain. (One could even evoke a quote from Sigmund Freud: “The first human to loose an insult at his enemy rather than a weapon was the founder of civilization.")

The authorities did their best when El-Hussein converted words into actions. The police stopped him from breaking into the cafe where the debate was taking place and prevented a massacre. They caught up with him quickly and killed him when he resisted arrest. Yes, five officers were wounded last weekend, but police work is dangerous.

The authorities are also right to guard people like Westergaard, Lars Vilks (the Swedish cartoonist whose event in Copenhagen was attacked), Larry Pickering in Australia or Molly Norris in the US Mocking the prophet Muhammad is their personal choice, just as the Islamists’ beliefs are theirs, and they are entitled to live out their lives after making it, so long as they do not resort to violence. Because of the personal risk these artists have taken for the sake of promoting liberty — a risk unacceptable to most people — they deserve that extra effort from their countries.

Both the conscious refusal to restrict free speech and a strong effort to protect it by force of arms send the same clear, powerful message to everyone living in free Western societies: You can believe and say whatever you want, but you cannot kill people for disagreeing with you. Denmark is already setting a good example in that regard, and it can set an even better one. Bloomberg

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Updated: 18 Feb 2015, 01:07 PM IST
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