This week, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared in court in his home country to face charges of “inciting discrimination and hatred”, which could carry a two-year prison sentence on each count. Wilders is, of course, the bomb-throwing right-wing populist whom I wrote about in 2008, made infamous by his short film Fitna (caution: some disturbing images).
When Wilders’ blunt criticisms of Islam caused fury among Muslims, the nation of Jordan – of which Wilders is not a citizen, and where he has no political or personal connections – demanded that he be extradited there in order to punish him. Understandably, the Dutch government refused. And despite a flood of complaints, Dutch prosecutors – to their credit – refused to charge him, finding that he had broken no laws. Their statement on the matter was a clear and welcome affirmation of the principle of free speech:
“That comments are hurtful and offensive for a large number of Muslims does not mean that they are punishable. Freedom of expression fulfils an essential role in public debate in a democratic society. That means that offensive comments can be made in a political debate.”
But now a Dutch court of appeals, acting on its own initiative, has reversed this decision and ordered that Wilders be prosecuted – hence this week’s hearing.
Before I respond to this, let me make one thing clear: Wilders himself is a hypocrite. Despite his vaunted love for the principle of free speech, he’s called for a ban on the Qur’an, a ban on the founding of new mosques, and a ban on further immigration from Islamic countries. I disagree with all those proposals just as vehemently as I disagree with the plan to prosecute him.
But that’s precisely the point. It’s not Geert Wilders to whom I owe any allegiance, but the principle of freedom of expression. And the Netherlands is doing grave harm to that principle by its decision to prosecute someone for doing nothing more than voicing his opinion. As Russell Blackford astutely notes, it’s not just Geert Wilders who’s on trial now – it’s the Netherlands as well. If it shows by its actions that it is now a country where a person can be jailed for speaking his mind, it’s well on its way to erasing the distinction between itself and the theocracies of Islam.
In truth, it’s not Wilders’ fate I’m particularly concerned about. If he’s acquitted, so much the better. If he’s found guilty and punished, that will in all likelihood allow him to paint himself as a martyr (and rightfully so) and will probably win him even more support. The Dutch court has yet to learn the most basic lesson of free speech, that trying to suppress ideas by force tends to make them even more powerful and resilient.
What does concern me is that there are those among the Dutch people who fail to grasp what’s at stake here, who think they can solve all their problems with Islam by punishing the ones who call attention to them:
Gerard Spong, a prominent lawyer who pushed for Mr Wilders’s prosecution, welcomed the court’s decision.
“This is a happy day for all followers of Islam who do not want to be tossed on the garbage dump of Nazism,” he told reporters.
If Muslims are indeed concerned with avoiding that label, they should be doing more to stop violence in the name of Islam. Speak out, support free speech, denounce the imams who call for violence, make it clear that they are not the sole authority on the teachings of Islam! Muslims have not done nearly enough along these lines, and throwing one Geert Wilders in jail will accomplish precisely nothing if their actions are such as to cause similar thoughts to occur in a million minds. If anything, it’s likely to inspire more hatred, more anger, more xenophobia, and make the eventual outcome worse for everyone concerned.