Blasphemy charges in Muslim Indonesia. No big surprise. But Denmark? That's news -- or should be

Some news stories elicit a kind of weary "not again" response. Others elicit a, "is this really happening?" response.

Consider the following two recent stories, one from each category but linked by Islam and religious blasphemy as a legal concept. The first story comes to us from Indonesia. The other -- the "is this really happening?" story -- is from Denmark.

Here's the top of the Indonesia story.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Back in his days as a badminton coach with the Indonesian national team, Ahmad Mushaddeq traveled the world on the state’s dime. But after he became the spiritual leader of a back-to-the-land organic farming movement on the island of Borneo, regarded by his followers as the messiah who succeeded Muhammad, the government locked him up for the second time on charges of blasphemy.
This week, an Indonesian court sentenced him to a five-year prison term, and gave two other leading figures of Milah Abraham, the religious sect he established, prison terms as well. The sentences, delivered on Tuesday, were the latest in a continuing crackdown on new religious movements across Indonesia that has alarmed human rights groups.
“The verdict is another indicator of rising discrimination against religious minorities in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia representative for Human Rights Watch. He called for a review of state institutions that “facilitate such discrimination, including the blasphemy law office.”
Indonesia’s blasphemy laws have become a focus of debate ever since Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the hard-charging Christian governor of Jakarta, was indicted on charges of insulting the Quran in November. While his case has drawn the most attention, a significant portion of the more than 106 people convicted on blasphemy charges since 2004 are not Christians or even unorthodox Muslims, but self-proclaimed prophets and their apostles.

Need some context?

Indonesia is a multi-ethnic/multi-religious southeast Asian island nation, that -- despite being overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and home to the world's largest Muslim population -- has a reputation for moderation in its approach to religious pluralism.

But global Islam, you may have noticed, is going through a period of crisis.


Traditional Muslim societies -- existing largely in nations led by authoritarian governments (Indonesia is a democracy, though a weak one) -- have seen the non-Muslim West make gains that they can only envy and aspire toward, or, if thwarted, come to resent.

So while some Muslims long for Western-style change, others have reacted by retreating deeper into their traditional ways -- seeking to construct an identity wall, if you will, between their understanding of Islam and all others. A percentage of the latter group, of course, is responsible for the unprecedented wave of worldwide Islamist terrorism.

Indonesia, despite its tradition of moderation, also has some Islamists -- Muslims who view all politics through their religious prism. That's why my initial reaction to the above quoted New York Times story was a lethargic "not again."

The Denmark story, on the other hand, produced an anything-but lethargic reaction in me, because for the first time, a (non-Muslim) Dane has been charged with blasphemy after he set a copy of the Quran on fire in protest against Islam and posted a video of his act on Facebook.

Here's the top of this piece, also from the Times (it carried no dateline, an indication it was cobbled together in New York).

A 42-year-old man who burned a Quran and posted a video of it on Facebook has been charged with blasphemy in Denmark, a striking decision by prosecutors in a country that is largely secular but has grappled with the role of Islam in public life.
The decision stunned many Danes: No one has been convicted of blasphemy in Denmark since 1946, and the country has a long tradition of free speech; burning the flag is not a punishable crime.
Simmering tensions between religious sensitivities and free speech have been a theme in Denmark since 2005, when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The depictions outraged many Muslims, who consider such representations to be blasphemous.
The controversy led to deadly riots, attacks on Danish embassies in the Middle East and a trade boycott against Denmark. But Danish prosecutors at the time refused to charge the newspaper’s editors with blasphemy.
The decision to charge the Quran burner was made by a regional prosecutor in Viborg, on the Jutland peninsula, and had to be approved by the country’s attorney general.

An op-ed published by the Times this week, written from a left-leaning perspective, also noted that "an artist who burned a Bible on live television in 1997 wasn’t prosecuted," though "a number of former members of Parliament have also been convicted of hate speech, including for comparing Muslims to Hitler or claiming that Muslim fathers kill their own daughters."

All this sounds like a story worth telling. So why, I wonder, hasn't this story received more coverage than it has to date in American mainstream media?

The spotty coverage it has received has been largely inadequate; mostly abbreviated wire reports or blog posts that borrow from previously published reports. Here's two examples of what I mean, courtesy of CNN and then The Washington Post.

Conservative non-mainstream media, perhaps predictably, has given the story far more exposure. This essay ran on the website of First Things, the conservative Judeo-Christian journal. Also predictably, the story received much better coverage in Europe. Journalists will want to check out this piece from The Economist.

So again, why hasn't the American elite media given this story more play? After all, some newsrooms have done fine work covering the anti-Muslim, populist political backlash enveloping Western European nations with growing Muslim immigrant populations.

Why seemingly play into the conservative argument that the elite American media are too liberal, or too timid, to tackle a touchy story that, conceivably, could prompt Islamophobia charges, even if unwarranted?

Are they overwhelmed by all the President Donald Trump news? Or was this just one of those stories that got away, which happens all too frequently with all manner of stories in news rooms everywhere?

Writing from afar, I really can't say.

By the way, the next chapter in the unfolding story of Islam's growth in Western Europe will reach a climax this week (and may already have by the time you read this) when the Netherlands goes to the polls Wednesday.

Geert Wilders, the stridently anti-Muslim politician, and his party, could well come out on top in the voting to form a new government, according to the journalistic consensus.

 UPDATE: Wilders lost, though his party did pick up some additional seats, early returns showed.

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