Should Muslims Really Welcome Denmark’s Proposed Anti-Blasphemy Law?

Mustafa Akyol

Tension is growing in Sweden and Denmark, and in much of the Muslim world, because of recent public burnings of the Qur’an in those two European nations. The burnings sparked furious protests in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and other Middle East countries. Sweden and Denmark denounced the burnings as reprehensible but stressed that such actions are protected by free speech laws.

Four days ago, however, the Danish government announced plans for what can be called an anti‐​blasphemy law. Improper treatment of the Qur’an or Bible, Justice Minister Peter Hummelgaard said, would constitute a criminal offense punishable by a fine and a jail sentence of up to two years.

Many Muslims may welcome this as good news, thinking that the Danish government is finally showing proper respect to the Qur’an. But as a Muslim who also deeply respects the Qur’an, I think differently.

My first reason is about the very notion of blasphemy and the right way to counter it. I have no doubt that burning a scripture is a deeply offensive act that deserves moral condemnation. I also think it only reveals the crudeness of the blasphemer: if he had a real argument against that scripture—or any book—he could put it in words. Burning books, instead of criticizing them, is what barbarians do.

However, condemning blasphemy is one thing; banning it is another. And as I have argued elsewhere, the Qur’an itself does not call for banning; it tells Muslims to respond to mockery of their religion by simply showing patience (3:186) and staying away (4:140). (Post-Qur’anic “Islamic law” does impose the death penalty on blasphemers, but this can be seen as a medieval vestige that Muslims can disavow, as I and some other Muslim scholars have argued.)

Second, Muslims should think about what they really achieve when blasphemy against Islam is banned, whether in Denmark or elsewhere. Does this make people in those countries respect Islam? I don’t think so, for the people who hate Islam (“Islamophobes”) will believe what they believe, and such bans will probably make them only more agitated.

Many other people will roll their eyes over a religion that they see as too thin‐​skinned. Meanwhile, governments that ban anti‐​Islam expressions will do this grudgingly, just to reduce the threats against the safety of their citizens, as the Danish justice minister explicitly noted.

Some Muslims may still see a victory in that, but I don’t. I don’t see any value in “respect for Islam” that is imposed with threats. Instead, respect for Islam, or any religion, should be cultivated through ethical behavior. And the latter includes dignity, instead of fury, in the face of offense.

Third, these blasphemy incidents in Europe—from cartoons of Prophet Muhammad to Qur’an burnings — seem to have made many Muslims averse to the very notion of freedom of speech. This freedom, they seem to think, only works for those who want to insult their religion. So, it better be curbed.

Yet that is not the case at all because freedom of speech not only allows offenses against a religion. It also allows the defense and the proclamation of that religion, which Muslims have been freely practicing in Western liberal democracies by opening mosques, publishing books, and gaining converts.

For example, just after the Qur’an burning incidents in Sweden, the Kuwaiti government announced it would distribute 100,000 copies of the Qur’an in Swedish — freely, and thanks to free speech. This would be unthinkable in authoritarian regimes with little free speech, such as China or North Korea.

A new anti‐​blasphemy law in Denmark, coupled with a global shrinking of freedom of expression, is a real concern that Muslims cannot ignore. This contraction of free speech includes the ridiculous French bans on Muslim dress codes, which are getting worse and worse.

It also includes a new ruling by the Brazilian Supreme Court that criminalizes “homophobic slurs,” a vague definition that could target people with traditional beliefs about human sexuality, which includes most Muslims.

If freedom of speech shrinks further in Europe, Muslims will find their own religious expressions banned, as the Islamophobes who want to ban the Qur’an—saying that it includes “hate speech”—seriously advocate.

In other words, freedom of speech is a crucial right that everybody — from the most secular to the most religious — retains, the right to express themselves without fear. Therefore, I do not see more restrictions on speech as good news, even for ostensibly protecting the Qur’an.

Turkey’s Election Scenarios: The Good, the Bad, and the Scary

Mustafa Akyol

Today, I have new a piece in National Review: “Turkey’s Election Scenarios: The Good, the Bad, and the Scary.”

It is about the fateful elections that Turkey will have this Sunday. (Which we will also discuss tomorrow at a Cato Institute Policy Forum: “Turkey’s Centennial Election: What Is at Stake?”)

Despite the dramatic deterioration in Turkey’s freedoms and rule of law, I explain, the elections are still real and competitive:

Turkey is not a Russia, China, or Turkmenistan, where free elections have never been held; Turks have lived under a decently competitive, free electoral system since 1950. All votes are counted openly in the presence of opposition‐​party representatives and independent observers, so it is not easy to cheat. That is why Erdogan’s ruling AK Party grudgingly lost the country’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, to opposition mayors in 2019.

Which is why the presidential race between President Erdogan and the opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu is very tight. I see three possible scenarios — the good, the bad, and the scary:

The good scenario is that the opposition wins decisively, and Erdogan has no choice but to concede.

The bad scenario is that Erdogan wins decisively, as he has won every other election in the past two decades.

The scary scenario is a dispute over the results, which could escalate unpredictably in a country that is already extremely tense. This is possible especially if Kilicdaroglu wins with a very small margin, and Erdogan responds by taking a page from Donald Trump’s 2020 playbook. His hawkish interior minister has already prepared the way for this by calling the election “the West’s political coup attempt.”

Read more in National Review.

Western Muslims, LGBT Rights, and Free Speech

Mustafa Akyol

In recent years, Muslim communities in the West have been pushed to two opposite trends: On the one hand, there are Muslim politicians or activists who ally themselves with the progressive left, because the latter’s “inclusion” agenda promises a better future for Muslims. If “transphobia” is defeated, the logic goes, “Islamophobia” will be defeated, too.

On the other hand, there are ultra‐​conservative Muslims, who condemn any new interpretation of Islam as an illegitimate concession by treacherous sell‐​outs. They glorify the most rigid interpretations of Islam, including that of the Taliban, while denouncing the evils of Western liberalism. (Yet they keep living in London or Texas, for some curious reason, instead of flocking to Kabul or Kandahar.)

The tension between these two philosophies has recently come to a head following an unprecedented development in Scotland.

On March 29 of this year, the seat of the First Ministerthe very leadership of the countrywas taken by a member of an ethnic minority. Humza Yousaf (37), a Muslim politician born to Pakistani immigrants, took the oath of office, pledged his allegiance to the King, and vowed to work for “the best interests of our nation.”

This was a historic moment not just for Scotland, but also for Western Muslims. The Muslim Council of Britain stressed this point, hoping the “first leader of a British nation from a Muslim background” may be “a source of great unity across communities.” The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, also a Muslim, similarly hailed the “significance of this moment.”

However, not all British Muslims agreed. Two days after Yousaf’s inauguration, Muhammad Hijab, a popular hardliner in the British Muslim community with more than 737,000 followers on YouTube, issued a declaration of ex‐​communication. “The First Minister of Scotland is not a Muslim,” he claimed, “but a clear‐​cut infidel.”

Appealing to Yousaf himself, Hijab contemptuously added, “You are nothing, because you have left the religion of Islam. And the only way back is for repentance and clarification.”

Some other prominent Muslim conservatives on social media supported Hijab’s condemnation. Others said maybe formal excommunication is too much, but conceded Yousaf had crossed boundaries that no real Muslim would overstep.

These boundaries are mostly about Yousaf’s championship of the LGBT movement, which has been a pillar of his political career. He vocally supports same‐​sex marriage, and vows to make legal gender transition easier. In his latest campaign, he promised that he would continue “promoting and protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people” even by “embedding LGBTQ+ rights in an independent Scotland’s constitution.”

Further, in a Sky TV interview that went viral, Yousaf was asked whether “gay sex is a sin.”

“No,” he said boldly, seeming to give not just a political statement but also a religious opinion.

For most conservative Muslims, such statements are unacceptable, because traditional Islamic sources do condemn homosexual sex as sin. The Qur’an, echoing the Bible, tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where “the people of Lot” are condemned for “lustfully approaching men instead of women.” Hadiths, or words attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, also condemn “sodomy,” in line with “adultery,” and even decree for them the death penalty.

So, perhaps it wasn’t very wise for Yousaf to flatly assert, as a self‐​declared believing Muslim, that homosexual sex is “not a sin.” Religions, after all, have the right to define whatever they consider as sin, and caution their believers against them. According to Islam, eating pork, getting intoxicated, or gambling are also sins—and Muslims do not have to decide otherwise to be better citizens of Western liberal democracies. They just have to accept that individuals have the freedom to commit those sins—and leave the judgment to God.

In other words, Muslims can live peacefully with peoples of “un‐​Islamic” worldviews and lifestyles—from LGBTQ+ activists to atheists, from Christians to pagans. They can also respect and even defend their rights as fellow human beings, while preserving their own theological and ethical convictions. They can enjoy their freedom of religion, in other words, while respecting other people’s freedom from religion.

Yet this live‐​and‐​let‐​live solution seems not to be fully articulated in Islam today. Hence Muslim elected leaders in liberal democracies—including Ilhan Omar of the U.S. House of Representatives—often have a hard time explaining their enthusiastic progressivism to a largely conservative community. Some may also go really too far, as seen with Yousaf’s illiberal plans to ban conversion therapy and to criminalize any speech that “stirs up hatred.” In return, conservatives trench themselves in a medieval jurisprudence.

But regardless of how these two trends within Western Muslims choose to air their conflicts, there is an aspect of Western liberalism that all these Muslims of diverse opinions keep enjoying: freedom of speech. If, for example, Yousaf received a “fatwa” on his “infidelity” in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan, then he would have to fear for this life. (Because “infidelity” of a Muslim means “apostasy,” which, according to most conservatives, can be punished with the death penalty.)

Conversely, the hardline Western Muslims who revile Western liberalism would probably end up in jail, if not torture cells, if they were living in those countries and were condemning their political systems.

In other words, thanks to Western free speech, Western Muslims are able to freely discuss important issues of Islam that are simply impossible to question in much of the Muslim world. That is why, despite all the brouhaha, the Western Muslim experience is an important one.

Hopefully, in the long run, it can help more and more Muslims embrace the key value of liberalism: living by your own values, while respecting others—from “heretics” and “infidels,” to sexual minorities—to live by theirs.