"Muslims love to take advantage of" free speech, Danish-Palestinian poet Yahya Hassan says, "and as soon as there is someone else saying something critical against them, they want to restrict it." In an action previously indicated by this writer, Hassan is now personally facing this double standard in Danish "hate speech" charges for his anti-Islam comments.
Following Danish-Iranian artist Firoozeh Bazrafkan's conviction under Danish Penal Code Section 266b (in Danish here) for condemning Islam as misogynist, a local Muslim Aarhus politician demanded a similar prosecution of Hassan. His poetry "says that everybody in the ghettos like Vollsmose and Gellerup steal, don't pay taxes and cheat themselves to pensions," the Somali-Dane Mohamed Suleban stated after reporting Hassan to the police on November 27. "Those are highly generalizing statements and they offend me and many other people." Authorities are currently considering Section 266b charges for, according to one English translation, any public "communication by which a group of persons are threatened, insulted or denigrated due to their race, skin color, national or ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation."
The 18-year-old Hassan's eponymous debut book contains about 150 poems, "many of which are severely critical of the religious environment he grew up in" according to Wall Street Journal reporters Clemens Bomsdorf and Ellen Emmerentze Jervell. Written in all capital letters, Hassan's poems treat "issues like the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, child abuse, and the interplay between violence and religion" with "[p]rofanity and vivid analogies." Yahya Hassan has sold 80,000 copies following an October 17 release in the comparatively small Danish market and is expected to exceed 100,000 copies by Christmas. Hassan's publisher Gyldendal reports that Danish poetry books are fortunate to sell 500 copies. A recent book forum honored Hassan as the debut author of the year and an English translation of his poetry is underway.
Hassan first became prominent with an October 5 Danish newspaper interview entitled "I F**king Hate My Parents' Generation." In it he blamed poor Muslim parenting for the juvenile delinquency and social maladjustment experienced by many Danish Muslim youth such as Hassan himself. With more than 85,000 social media shares, the interview became the most shared Politiken article of the year.
Days thereafter Hassan recited from his "LANGDIGT" or "LONG POEM" before his book's release on the Danish news program Deadline. Extract: "between the Friday prayers and the Ramadans/you want to carry a knife in your pocket/you want to go and ask people if they have a problem/although the only problem is you." Such verses brought Hassan more death threats than any other previous Deadline guest. Hassan has subsequently reported 27 Facebook threats against him, of which the police investigated six as serious and pressed charges in one case of a 15-year old boy. A subsequent assault against Hassan occurred on November 18 in Copenhagen Central Station by a 24-year old Palestinian-Danish Muslim who had previously received a seven-year terrorism sentence.
Hassan now wears a bulletproof vest and receives protection from Denmark's domestic intelligence agency PET at speaking engagements. A November 26 reading by Hassan from his book in a school in the Danish town of Odense, moreover, required an estimated one million kroner in security costs, more than the amount spent on a high-risk soccer game. Several hundred policemen had observed the school for two days before the event occurred with road checkpoints, a bomb sweep, and a five kilometer no-fly zone around the school.
Police safety concerns had forced the cancellation of an earlier, sold-out reading at a public library in Odense's troubled district of Vollsmose. Along with Hassan, Culture Minister Marianne Jelved and several other Danish politicians criticized the Vollmose cancellation as "completely unacceptable." Jelved demanded that police in Vollmose "make the necessary precautions" in order "to hold on to what democracy is, or otherwise we reduce it day by day."
Yet Suleban's charges might succeed in silencing Hassan where violence has failed. Jacob Mchangama, legal affairs director at Denmark's liberal think-tank Cepos, sees a "strong case" against Hassan, particularly given a "range of similar preceding cases" like Bazrafkan's. Hassan's media attention and public popularity, though, might make conviction difficult, as "his poems are important social commentary." Hassan's acquittal "for making statements similar to what other people have been convicted for," Mchangama nonetheless observed, "will expose a random legislation where no-one can be sure of what is legal to say."
Calling for Section 266b's abolition, Mchangama further questions the law's "arbitrary limits." What "is sufficiently degrading" and why should, for example, homosexuals receive protection, but not disabled people. Mchangama also sees no "good science" correlating speech laws with "less hate crimes." Other commentators, moreover, have argued that speech trials simply bring more attention to the offending statements.
Hassan's case presents speech codes functioning not just as a de facto blasphemy, but also as a de facto apostasy law protecting Islam. How, after all, can an atheist like Hassan, who says that there is "something wrong with Islam," decide upon his religious views without rigorous testing of all faiths? For that matter, how could anyone answer Hassan's call for a "reformation" in an Islam that "refuses to renew itself" without similar scrutiny? Such questions aside, Hassan remains committed to his criticisms, stating that he does not "care about getting convicted of racism." Muslims threatening violence can likewise "all come and get me if they want. I don't give a s**t about these morons." "I know these people," Hassan adds, "They can't handle criticism…they're not interested in dialogue."
This article was commissioned by The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.