Free Speech on Trial, Continued

Free Speech on Trial, Continued October 6, 2010

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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