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Blasphemy in Norway

In response to:

Norway: The Two Faces of Extremism from the March 5, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Several Norwegian readers* have commented on a confusing reference to recent hate speech legislation in my article “Norway: The Two Faces of Extremism” [NYR, March 5]. To clarify, Norwegian law has long drawn a distinction between “racist” or defamatory speech against individuals, on the one hand, and defamatory speech against a religion, or “blasphemy,” on the other.

The 2009 legislation I mentioned did not concern hate speech against individuals (section 135a of the Norwegian penal code) but rather a proposal to reinstate the country’s long-dormant blasphemy law (section 142), which prohibited “any word or deed [that] publicly insults or shows contempt for any religion whose practice [in Norway] is permitted.” The proposal was killed after it came under concerted attack both by the right-wing website Document.no and by online activists on the left. In contrast, new penalties for hate speech against individuals were in fact introduced in 2005, and included in the revised penal code passed by Parliament in 2009; however the reforms have not yet taken effect.

It is worth noting the extent to which debate in Norway about both kinds of defamation have related to the country’s growing Muslim community. As with blasphemy laws in other countries (including, today, in a number of predominantly Muslim countries like Pakistan), the Norwegian blasphemy law was originally intended to protect the majority religion; Norway was at the time an overwhelmingly Lutheran state. The law was rarely used, however, and its application to minority religions largely untested. During the Salman Rushdie affair in 1988–1989, some Muslim groups in Norway tried to invoke the law to have Rushdie’s book banned, but the effort failed.

Despite the pending reforms to hate speech law, meanwhile, Norway has a notably strong tradition of free expression, and a broad consensus has emerged, particularly in the years since the 2011 Breivik attacks, that unrestricted speech is salutary to open democracy. To some liberal commentators, however, this tendency has led to growing hostility toward the Muslim community in particular, with the press and television devoting disproportionate attention to the statements of extremists at the expense of more representative voices.

Hugh Eakin
New York City

  1. *

    I am grateful to Sindre Bangstad for sharing his insights on this subject.