On Valentine’s Day, a lone gunman unleashed terror on Copenhagen as he attacked a free speech event and a Jewish Synagogue, killing two people and injuring three others. The targets of the attacks were Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who once portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a dog, and a few Jewish families attending a bat mitzvah. The killings left the country in shock but its people are still defiant about their right to express themselves. All around, there is a sense of déjà vu about the ideological battle that lies behind the latest slayings. How has this small country in Europe landed at the forefront of Islamic extremists’ problem with the idea of free speech?

The last 10 years have been difficult for Denmark as its perception has become vitiated in the Islamic world. It all started with a row around Prophet Mohammed cartoons. Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten released 12 editorial cartoons titled “Mohammed’s Face” on September 30, 2005. Those cartoons were meant to add to the debate on self-censorship including but not limited to Islam. But the response was expectedly critical of the newspaper.

Eleven Ambassadors from various countries sought to meet Danish Prime Minister Anders Føgh Rasmussen about the matter and urged him to take “all those responsible to task under law of the land in the interest of inter-faith harmony, better integration and Denmark’s overall relations with the Muslim world”. The Danish government replied that the country has liberal free speech laws but also a blasphemy law which could be used to seek justice against the newspaper.

A group of Danish imams formed a committee to protest against the cartoons and filed a lawsuit against Jyllands-Posten under Denmark’s blasphemy laws. The lawsuit was set aside by the court on the grounds that the newspaper acted in Denmark’s public interest and that the journalists had editorial freedom in this case. In early 2006, months of simmering international anger finally exploded, with protests and demonstrations around the world as well as threats against Danish embassies. There were boycotts of Danish products throughout the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Strains of Islamophobia

The cartoons row put Denmark on the map for all the wrong reasons. In 2006, in the eyes of the Islamic world, Denmark went from a small European country to blasphemers. Four years later, an attempt was made on the life of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the Prophet wearing a bomb in his turban, at his home in Aarhus. Three men were caught while Westergaard and his wife hid in the safe room that had been built to escape exactly such a situation. Other Danish newspapers responded to this attack by reprinting the Mohammad cartoons to reiterate their commitment to the freedom of speech and to send the message that “no-one should feel their life was threatened because of a drawing”.

This commitment to freedom of expression frequently plays out in the public sphere in Denmark, with some politicians eagerly capitalising on the fervent belief.

Like many nations in Europe, Denmark is no stranger to strains of Islamophobia and the rise of the far-right Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) is a reflection of that. The third-most popular party in the nation, it claims that Denmark has too many Muslims and is against allowing any more Muslim immigrants in. It rejects multiculturalism and wants to do away with the anti-blasphemy law.

Non-Muslims and Muslims have clashed many times over the last decade or so and there are no signs of the unrest ending. One incident from the year 2013 stands out. Lars Hedegaard, a former newspaper editor known for his scathing views on Islam, was attacked by an armed assailant disguised as a postman. The murder attempt was foiled by Hedegaard but something interesting happened in the wake of the incident. Danish Muslim groups came together to defend Hedegaard and his right to express his opinions. The attempt on his life was roundly condemned by them.

There is little doubt that freedom of expression will continue to be defended by everyone, Non-Muslims and Muslims alike, in Denmark even after the recent Valentine’s Day attacks. But will the fear of violence spur a rise in self-censorship? That remains to be seen.