After Paris and Copenhagen, can free speech learn to live with religion?

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo poses near a banner which reads "Charlie Hebdo, Honorary citizen of Paris," displayed in front of the City Hall.
Jacky Naegelen | Reuters
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo poses near a banner which reads "Charlie Hebdo, Honorary citizen of Paris," displayed in front of the City Hall.

Recent killings in Copenhagen and Paris have renewed an age-old debate: Should societies with vigorous traditions in free speech either adopt or strengthen laws against blasphemy?

At least a fifth of all the countries in the world maintain anti-blasphemy laws, according to the Pew Research Center—which include several Western European countries such as Denmark, Germany and Italy.

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Yet laws against offending the pious have been accompanied by increasing criticism about whether liberal democracies should even entertain them. Although some argue that blasphemy laws actually encourage zealotry, and feed the cycle of religious-inspired violence, international organizations like the United Nations have pushed to criminalize religious defamation.

Secular governments are attempting to grapple with "problems associated with terrorism and fundamentalism," Tomas Byrne, an author and attorney based in Stockholm told CNBC. "The question becomes, if states are trying to respond…is there a way to keep the peace?"

Byrne, a native Canadian who was educated at the University of Oxford, worked as a lawyer and banker for 20 years in London. As it happens, the U.K. has become one of Europe's hottest crucibles in the debate betweencultural assimilation and strict interpretations of Islam.

"I don't think the context we have in western society are neutral concepts," said Byrne, who cited the "direct clash" that ensues when religious groups are confronted with speech they deem offensive.

"There's no way to dance around that. In places like Denmark and Germany they have tried to show tolerance by putting in place [blasphemy] laws…and if we live in a society where we want to choose between visions, we have to be able to risk causing offense," Byrne said, asking, "How effectively can you enforce tolerance?"

Freedom House, an independent freedom watchdog organization, wrote in a 2010 report that blasphemy laws "inevitably fail to address the issue of what exactly constitutes blasphemy, leaving enormous discretion in the hands of prosecutors, judges, and accusers who may be influenced by political or personal priorities."

In other words, regardless of how strict laws are preventing blasphemy, their application and interpretation can vary widely from country to country, and lead to dramatically different results. Pakistan, for instance, is notorious for tough enforcement against apostacy—yet blasphemy accusations and retributions have surged there in recent years.

'Can you enforce tolerance?'

"The context is different [in the West] than blasphemy laws in the Middle East," Byrne said, whose writings have touched on hot button political and religious topics. "Blasphemy isn't harm to individuals, it's based on impious or ungodly speech. Western countries are trying to reduce people's offense…whereas the laws in Islamic states are based on scripture, and based on what you cannot say."

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Hence the growing tension. Muslims are the continent's fastest growing group, and are projected to make up 8 percent of its population by 2030.

In some countries, that question has prompted a measure of soul searching. In the wake of the deadly Charlie Hebdo killings, Ireland has begun a public debate about whether to abandon its own protections against anti-religious speech. Ireland's laws were originally applicable to Christianity, but were expanded in 2009 to include other faiths.

For his part, Byrne was skeptical about the ability of these laws to accomplish their stated goals—and will result in a chilling effect on free speech. Nor is the United States entirely immune to Europe's problems.

"I don't think all Islamic people would disagree with the concept of free speech, but they should be able to accept the idea that they might be offended if they come to this society," he said.

If religious adherents don't want to accept fundamental tenets of western society, governments "shouldn't create blasphemy laws to appease specific segments of society," the author added.

"The problem is that if you start placing limits on free speech, every single interest group in the world is going to get in queue and say 'I don't want to be offended,' and nobody will be able to talk about anything," Byrne said. "That's why it has to stop."