Free Speech on Trial, Continued

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Russia’s increasingly hostile and repressive attitude toward speech which criticizes the state-sponsored church. Now another Russian artist is facing persecution:

Mavromatti, 45, fled to Bulgaria in 2000 after the Russian Orthodox Church complained about a movie he was shooting in which he is crucified. He was accused of violating a criminal code that includes inciting religious hatred and denigrating the church, an offense punishable by as much as five years in prison.

What shocks me the most is that the Russian authorities and their clerical henchmen weren’t satisfied with chasing Mavromatti from the country. They’re still actively in pursuit, trying to revoke his passport, trying to get Interpol to issue warrants for him. I’m proud to say that my senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, has been pushing to secure refugee status for this martyr of free speech. I’ve sent her a letter to let her know that her efforts are appreciated and to urge her to continue – if you live in the U.S., or if you don’t, please consider doing the same.

It’s obvious that Russia’s rulers see themselves as the new tsars, absolute monarchs reigning over both the state and the church. They’re using the Russian Orthodox church as their instrument, a tool to wield in the service of promoting nationalism and unquestioning allegiance among the people, and the church itself is only too glad to join in this game. Like all churches everywhere that gain state favor, their first step was to call for the silencing and imprisonment of everyone who presumes to criticize their beliefs, as well as people who merely fail to treat them with the level of deference they demand.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had a brief season of democracy, but that noble experiment is fading. It’s rapidly regressing to a dictatorship, a theocratic state where any criticism of the glorious leader is forbidden (as is also evidenced by its brutal, across-the-board crackdown on journalists and reformers). And as always, as people’s freedom slips away, the churches are there working hand-in-hand with the powerful, ordering the masses to obey and gladly trading their alleged spiritual authority for temporal rewards.

On a related note, the trial of Geert Wilders is finally beginning. As I wrote back in January, a Dutch court ordered the firebrand politician tried for “inciting discrimination and hatred” after a series of interviews where he voiced harsh criticism of Islam.

Regardless of what you think about Wilders himself – I tend to think he’s a hypocrite, since he’s called for a ban on the Qur’an despite his rhetoric about free speech – it shouldn’t be hard to see the dangerous precedent set by banning the public expression of an idea. As far as I know, no one is claiming that Wilders has ever encouraged violence. As long as that’s true, what harm can there be in letting him speak? The court’s decision to charge him for expressing his opinions, however harsh, implies that Muslims are too immature to have their beliefs challenged and need to be sheltered from criticism for their own good – a far more condescending and belittling view than anything Wilders himself has ever uttered.

What makes this trial especially bizarre is that Wilders’ political party, the PVV, holds the balance of power in a fragile three-party coalition government with a mere one-vote majority. It’s unclear what the effect on the government would be if he were imprisoned. (The PVV’s coalition partners have promised to consider Wilders’ platform, including a burqa ban, in exchange for their support on other issues.) Ironically, all the media attention over the trial has caused Wilders to skyrocket in popularity, and is likely responsible for the PVV’s tiebreaking power in the current government – an excellent demonstration of the principle that trying to suppress an idea by force only makes it more popular and its advocates more sympathetic. If Wilders is convicted, that injustice would probably provoke the backlash against Muslims that the Dutch authorities fear.

Punishing Geert Wilders would be doing nothing but shooting the messenger. The reason his party has come to power is because the Dutch are concerned, and rightly so, about the growth of an Islamic minority that’s an incubator for violence and terrorism – as evidenced by the brutal 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh and the ongoing death threats against his collaborator Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It does no good to say that not all Muslims are guilty of these crimes, not when the radical strains of thought that inspired van Gogh’s killer still circulate so freely among them.

Wilders has risen to prominence only because he’s expressing views that many others hold, and imprisoning him would do precisely nothing to stop the spread of those views. If this problem is going to be solved, that solution must begin with a free and open debate, and putting people on trial won’t ensure a peaceful solution. If anything, it may make the day of reckoning far worse when it finally arrives.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • kennypo65

    It’s an interesting insight into human nature that the things we consider fundamental rights are the things that we have to fight hardest for. The communists stripped the church of its power back in the day because they were well aware that it was a tool of the czarist regime. Now it’s back, for the new Czar.

  • L.Long

    Has there been any place
    where there has been an intense totalitarianism
    Then for some reason democracy was introduced
    That has not reverted back to a form of totalitarianism with in 50yrs??
    I’m also think of The middle east.
    We helped get a democracy started but I give it only 10yrs to full theocracy.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    L. Long: Hitlerite Germany.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I love hate speech.

    I don’t get why people don’t get this.

    I want the haters out in the open, out in public, in the disinfecting sunlight of unfettered discourse.

    I will be severely disappointed if the SC rules against Phelps (in the case regarding military funeral protests by a crazy anti-gay church).

    I spent a bunch of time in France with some Dutch folks, so I got a bit of insight into Dutch politics and culture.

    The problem with the Netherlands is that they have an extremely communitarian attitude.

    This is reflected in their coalition style government.

    This was never a problem when all Dutch were more or less the same.

    This wasn’t even a problem when they welcomed in all of their Muslim immigrants, for a while, because they were such a tiny minority, that they didn’t have any power to influence Dutch politics. And, because they thought they would integrate into Dutch society.

    But, now that the Muslim immigrant population in the Netherlands (a tiny country) has become a not insignificant force in Dutch politics and society, the communitarian Dutch attitude and coalition style government doesn’t work, because Sharia is entirely incompatible with democracy and human rights. You have a not insignificant population insisting upon living as if in a human rights hating 9th century theocracy in the midst of a modern democracy (ok, technically a parliamentary monarchy, but the queen is just a figure head).

    So, on that point, I agree with Geert. I do NOT agree with his calls to ban the Quran. That IS hypocritical. He also frames it as a Xtian – Muslim battle, which I hate. Why not secularism, Geert? Secularism.

    We have this same problem in the US, but we have the luxury of ignoring it and pretending that it doesn’t exist (and just selling out the women and children in religious communities across the US). In fact, the US IS devolving into religious communitarianism.

    I see hate speech and hate crime legislation as indicative of this.

    And, as if the Quran doesn’t incite hatred and discrimination and violence.

    When I was in France, my Dutch friend showed me clips on youtube of Dutch kids singing songs about having two mommies or daddys and how being gay is cool from kids’ tv shows. (That would make Phelps’ head spin off.)

    I think that typical Dutch culture is so open and so tolerant and when the Muslim immigrants showed up, they were so aghast and disgusted by the “immorality” that they recoiled into themselves, and the Dutch just let them alone, thinking that they would loosen up and realize how cool being Dutch is, and they just never did. Also, that communitarian attitude didn’t help any — “that’s their culture”; “that’s their religion”. I think there is definitely also an element of condescending and patronizing disdain.

    In a way, that live and let live attitude was their undoing. The degree to which Muslim immigrant communities are ghettoized and segregated from the wider Dutch society is insane. They should have done more to try to integrate the newcomers into Dutch society. It wasn’t so bad when everyone was working, but now that the economy isn’t so hot, the 2nd and 3rd generation youth in those ghettoes feel abandoned and disenfranchised and they are retreating into a radicalized form of Islam.

  • Nathaniel

    Pretty chilling analysis. While I got some sense of what you’re talking about from the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you put it in a succinct and disquieting fashion. Is there any hope for the Dutch?

    One thing I’ve always wondered about the U.S. is the reason for its relatively integrated Muslim populace as compared to places like France or the Netherlands. Is it the first amendment? Our immigration policies? I think it would be useful to know, given the radical Islam spreading in many Muslim communities in Europe.

    As for Wilders, he’s an asshole. And asshole’s need to have free speech for non-asshole speech to be protected. Pretty simple.

  • John Nernoff

    I guess the Dutch are getting back all that’s due them for their previous raping of their “colonies” — say in Indonesia. They are getting a stupid religion infecting their society like a mind numbing virus, complete with turning its host into a violent animal with a pithed brain. Humans are little more than chimps screeching from their lairs in trees.

  • Jim Baerg

    Re: comment #2 by L.Long
    It looks to me like all the existing stable democracies are either places that were settled by people coming from places with an existing significant democratic tradition ( eg: most of the English speaking world) or went through a few failed attempts before getting it right enough to avoid falling back into a bloody dictatorship (eg; France). I note that Britain went through its Civil War & the Protectorate in the 17th century.

    In the short term I’m pessimistic about places like Russia, but in the longer term I can see good reason to hope.

  • stag

    #5 Nathaniel:

    I think the relative success of integration in America has something to do with the fact that America still believes in itself as a nation, a culture and an idea (even if President Obama is doing all he can to change that). European nations like Netherlands, France, UK, Germany etc have lost hold of that in the throes of post-colonial, or post-Nazi, or post-Christian guilt. Plummeting birthrates in Western Europe bespeak a society resigned to its fate, simply floating, passively, upon the waves of history, ashamed of its past, doubting its present, despairing of its future.
    America still has belief, still has idealism (although this clearly can bring its own opportunities for global exploitation), and, in sum, it offers something living and viable into which Muslims can integrate. They can buy the vision, they can clearly perceive the values, they can come to value the idea. But what vision, what values, what ideas can be said to inspire Europeans to pride and real belief in their nations and the things they once stood for? Europe is weak – ideologically, spiritually, politically, militarily, globally. It has given up the ghost. Islam, on the other hand, is strong, alive and pulsating with all the raw fervour provided by a totalitarian ideology sanctioned by the Most High and promised universal hegemony by his mighty and incontrovertible word. Given this, it’s easy to see why Muslims often don’t integrate.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Stag, your analysis is undercut by the palpable fear and retreat from today represented by the growth of the Tea Party. When they shout “I want my[!] America back!” they are repudiating the idea that immigrants have been valuable members of America. They are preaching xenophobia, and all the soothing words in the world cannot change that essential fact.

  • stag

    Not undercut, IMO, but reinforced. They preach their message – be it xenophobic or not – because they believe in what they think is their country and what they think it stands for. Whether they are right or wrong, you don’t get much of that going on in Europe today.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think a huge reason why we don’t see the same degree of radicalization of Muslim communities in the US that we see in Europe is because the US does not fund faith-based schools like the UK does.

    There are so many people trying to change this. And, who are surreptitiously finding more and more ways to reroute government funds to faith-based education.

    If we give up public education in the US, which many argue that we should do, we will lose our democracy.

  • Scotlyn

    With you 100% on that point, Sarah.

  • kurmujjin

    Again it seems ironic that the groups that most seek liberty and tolerance are the least tolerant of all… How do you enforce tolerance? Can it be enforced?

    I have to agree that good public education plays a large part in this.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head, kurmujjin.

    In the US, where we have a tradition of religious communitarianism (our mythical rugged individualism has only ever really existed for men, sorry, white men), we think freedom of religion includes the freedom to own and control the community members, especially the women, and especially their vaginas, as well as the freedom to violate the human rights of persons outside of the community.

    Europe was going in that direction too, at least for their Muslim immigrants, and a lot of this was a response to their collective sense of guilt about their imperialistic past of colonization and pillaging.

    But, lately, Europe has had to wake up. They’ve said, wait a minute, no it’s not ok for you to violate others’ human rights, and you don’t just get to claim it as a religious liberty.

    I think we need to move away from the typical dialogue about tolerance.

    We talk about tolerance as if it were an aim in and of itself. It’s not. It depends upon what you are asking me to tolerate.

    We need to talk about rights. I am not going to tolerate you violating someone’s human rights.

    But, someone says, “Oh, but just wait a minute, missy. I have a right to practice my religion.”

    Ok, fine, sure. Of course, you do. But, you don’t have the right to practice your religion on someone else’s body or rights.

    You have the right to believe that God wants you to cut out your daughter’s clitoris.

    You don’t have the right to cut out your daughter’s clitoris.

    You have the right to believe that God wants you to force your daughter to wear a burqa and marry her adult cousin at the age of 12.

    You don’t have the right to force your daughter to wear a burqa and marry her adult cousin at the age of 12.

    You have the right to believe that God wants you to force your children to practice your religion.

    You don’t have the right to force your children to practice your religion.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think part of the reason why we haven’t seen the same degree of radicalization of the Muslim immigrant communities in the US is because we do have that tradition of religious communitarianism.

    We don’t hold them accountable to the same laws as everybody else. And, in the US, religious liberty most definitely trumps women’s human and civil rights. This goes for Xtian fundamentalist religious communities too. Utah and huge chunks of the west is basically a sovereign nation answerable to the Twelve Apostates, I mean Apostles.

    But, Europe has started to say, no, sorry, we are going to hold you to the same secular laws and constitutions as everybody else. (I know — too little, too late. Talk about the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam.)

    You don’t get to recreate Algeria or Morocco or Pakistan in France or the UK or the Netherlands.

    And, you certainly don’t get to recreate the Islamic caliphate in microcosm in the midst of a liberal constitutional democracy.

    That doesn’t fly.

  • kurmujjin

    Sarah, I agree with you. I think the only law that should be enforced is the secular society which is host to the religious group. As soon as a religious law threatens to violate a secular right (or before if possible), the threatened individual should be protected, by force if necessary. It should be understood that submission to religious law is purely voluntary on the part of individuals who are deemed old enough from the point of view of the secular government to make that decision. All other individuals are protected by the secular society/government. Religious leaders or members who violate this principle should be prosecuted aggressively.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    @Stag, #10: What do you think is going on in France, Denmark, England or Germany? How about the mosque controversy, not in New York, but in Switzerland?

  • lpetrich

    I don’t know where stag gets his ideas from. Fox News? Movement-conservative talking points about supposed European decadence? Just like Marxists talking about how decadent capitalism supposedly is. Low birthrates are common in industrial societies, because children mean negative cashflow rather than positive cashflow.

    As to belligerent, jingoistic nationalism, Europe had plenty in the 1930′s and 1940′s. As it is, Europe has no shortage of xenophobes, and Islamists on the march only adds to them.

    Turning to Russia, all I can say is don’t they ever learn anything? After Tsarism and Communism, they seem like they are doing much the same thing again. The Russian Orthodox Church was closely associated with the Tsarist regime, but the Communists treated the Church as the moral equivalent of a gang of drug dealers. Now the Church is back, and it wants its old Tsarist position again.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think we should ignore stag’s comment, as it has little to no basis in reality.

    There is this weird thing happening right now — this weird Euro / Anglo animosity — I guess it has always existed, but seems to be crescendoing since 9/11.

    Americans (IMO) love to point out, well, at least we’re not racist and anti-immigrant and haters and Islamophobes like the Europeans. And, they point to the Roma and the burqa ban and Sarkozy and Geert and the Swiss ban on minarets and neo Nazis in Austria and Germany and French discrimination against Muslim immigrants relegated to neglected ghettoes in the suburbs, of course, the Holocaust.

    And, Europeans (IMO) love to point out, well, at least we’re not racist and anti-immigrant and haters and Islamophobes like the Americans. And, they point to Bush era imperialistic wars across the globe, especially in the Middle East, and Mexican border minutemen and anti-mosque protesters and birthers and teabaggers (the French are a bit obsessed with the teabaggers) and, of course, slavery and the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans.

    The truth — both continents include their fair share of racists and anti-immigrant haters.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I feel like all of this flinging of aspersions back and forth across the pond is a distraction (intentional?) from very real, critical issues regarding the integration of our Muslim immigrant communities into our liberal, constitutional democracies.

  • Steve Bowen

    Sarah, I’m not sure society can integrate anyone that doesn’t want to integrate. Western secular, liberal mores do not synchronise with Islamic teaching so even moderate Muslims become marginalised. Simple everyday things like saving at a bank can cause problems for a Muslim as interest rates are funded by “gambling” on financial markets. Mainstream television is highly liberal and sexualised in ways we don’t notice but Muslims (and conservative Christians) do, meaning they do not partake of the general cultural discourse.
    I guess we should think ourselves lucky that although the Christian right and Islam have the same issues with modern society, ecumenicalism is too fragile to make them effective allies. Many of us are slowly casting off the deontolical morality of a more religious past in favour of a rational one, but Islam cannot slot into this environment easily.

  • Sarah Braasch

    When I say integrate, I mean educate about our secular laws and constitutions and civil rights.

    And, explain how secularism makes religious freedom possible.

    I noticed that, in the American press in particular, the journalists write, “Isn’t France horrible and racist? Look at how they make Muslim immigrants go to class to learn about French citizenship if they break French laws.”

    I think this is a terrific way to handle the situation. I think we need to focus more on educating new immigrants about secularism and equal protection and civil rights.

    And, I think we need to start holding Mormons and JWs and Amish and Southern Baptists and all of the other Xtian hardcores in the US to the same secular laws and constitutions.

    I know a few JWs who could use some American citizenship classes.

  • Scotlyn

    Sarah, I do agree on this. Civics classes should be taught everywhere. People need to know how much we gain – in all our human diversity – from a strong secular democracy with a charter for protecting individual rights – and we all need to learn to take up our own duty of care for the system’s ongoing maintenance and protection.

  • lpetrich

    Sarah Braasch, you stated “I know a few JWs who could use some American citizenship classes.” What are they deficient in?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ipetrich, I don’t even know where to begin.

    But, basically, the JWs are masters of creating a world unto themselves wherein they impose religious law (and they have their own de facto judiciary and strongly discourage, de facto prohibit, going to the authorities or using the secular courts in criminal matters) in defiance of secular law, and they expect the government to protect their religious liberties (the male leaders), but they refuse to participate in the democratic process (and actually pride themselves on this fact), and, actually, they are master hypocrites, insisting upon having their cake and eating it too, because they love to make use of our stellar judiciary in First Amendment matters (they are extremely litigious), but eschew voting and all other forms of participation, including military service.

    I actually see the government turning a blind eye to this type of religious communitarianism as an Establishment Clause violation.

    I have experienced first hand what it is like living in a community in which religious law reigns supreme, not the US Constitution.

    And, I can say, without equivocation, that anyone who supports separate judiciaries (and law enforcement) in religious communities, be they Xtian, Jewish or Muslim, even if only for family law issues, is a fool.

    This is institutionalizing second class citizenship status for women and children.

    Not even second class. Women and children are property under religious law.

    And, it doesn’t help to say that they may choose either the secular courts or the religious courts.

    This is not a credible choice for women and children in these communities.

  • Scotlyn

    I am engaged in a correspondence with a local imam, which started when I wrote to him about this statement he made in the local paper, which puts the matter that you raise above rather starkly:

    There is a clear misunderstanding of the term Sharia law. People get alerted to what will happen them when they hear this term and see it as a negative thing. But under Sharia law a Christian can live by Christian laws, a Jew by the laws of Judaism, and Muslims by Sharia law.

    I wrote back (with some credit to yourself over the past few months for helping me to clarify my ideas on this), the following:

    You have made a proposition that is completely incompatible with life in a secular liberal democracy, although perhaps this simply betrays an unfamiliarity with liberal democratic values and the fundamental improvement they have made in the lives of societies that embrace them, especially religious ones. In a secular democracy, Christians are not subject to Christian law, Jews are not subject to Jewish law, nor Muslims subject to Sharia law. In such a democracy, everyone is subject to the same secular laws and must respect the rights of the individual to the protections of that law, regardless of their faith. No one in such a democracy can be made subject, in any legally enforceable sense, to the laws of their religion – although they may, of course, choose to follow its tenets and customs as a personal decision, so long as they are not subject to force or coercion of any kind. That is the meaning of separation of state and religion – the state may not enforce religious laws, even those of the religion of the majority. Liberal secular democracy is the only political system I know of which permits people of all religions, and none, to reside together in peace.

  • Sarah Braasch


    I heart you.

    Keep us posted.

    I will be very curious to know how he responds.

  • Thom

    I don’t recall where I read it but I heard a journalist, a woman, say that if you want to get at the essence of an issue, yes, you can read the article, but the important dialogue is in the Comments. Wow was she right.

    I agree with Scotlyn’s #26 re: secular law. To me it is analogous to an American traveling to another country and expecting laws as they know them to apply. The murder in Aruba for example, even American reporters were screaming when they let Joran go, a few times, BUT, they are not subject to the same rules of detention as the U.S. It’s important to remember.

    On the other hand, (I’m not contradicting myself, just stating) I was so saddened by the American student in Italy convicted of murder with barely a shred of evidence.


  • Sarah Braasch

    Not a commentary, but just an FYI.

    I thought this was an interesting article, given the conversation we were having here.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Just an FYI,

    Apparently the prosecutors in Geert’s case are seeking to have him acquitted on all charges.

    So, yay for free speech!!!

    I love hate speech!!!

  • David Hart

    Ipetrich: “the moral equivalent of a gang of drug dealers.”
    I know this is a bit off-topic, but I’ve got to call you up on this. Selling a drug to a willing buyer is not, in and of itself, immoral (provided what’s being sold is unadulterated and of a known dose, and the buyer is in full knowledge of the facts). The only reason that drugs are sold by violent criminal profiteers is the policy of prohibition that excludes honest people who are not interested in resorting to violence from the market. I’m sure you’re aware of this, but, since drug policy reform is a particular concern of mine, I don’t like to see policy evils misrepresented as intrinsic drug evils.

    Scotlyn: It strikes me that there’s another question your imam needs to be asked, which is: under Sharia law, how many people need to consider themselves a separate religious community before they are entitled to have their own religious law enforced under the umbrella of Sharia? If there were, say, two people who invented their own religion, whose laws were unlike anything else, would the imam concede that one of those two people could enforce those laws against the other? If not, how established does a religion need to be before he’d consider its laws valid for those who follow it? (this is a problem moral relativists have as well, of course)

    And also, if someone were to break a Jewish or Christian ‘law’ against doing something that is a positive commandment in Islam (I can’t think of any off-hand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some exist; run with me here) – and then convert to Islam, would he hold that the law shouldn’t be enforced against that person, and would he give the same answer if the conversion was in the other direction?

  • lpetrich

    My “moral equivalent of a gang of drug dealers” was inspired by Karl Marx’s famous statement that religion is the “opium of the people”. If that’s so, then that makes religious leaders the moral equivalent of drug dealers.

  • David Hart

    Ah, I see what you mean. Sorry I missed the allusion.