Holland puts free speech on trial

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The trial of Geert Wilders, leader of Holland’s Freedom Party and a Dutch MP, on charges of hate speech opened in Amsterdam last Wednesday.

Wilders is indicted for equating the Qur’an with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for likening Islam with Nazism and for producing a documentary film, Fitna, that is provocative and insulting to Muslims.

In calling for the prosecution of Wilders, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal declared: “By attacking the symbols of the Muslim religion, he also insulted Muslim believers. In a democratic system, hate speech is considered to be so serious that it is in the general interest to draw a clear line.”

The context of this trial is the gathering storm over Europe since 9/11. This is a result of the increasing weight of Muslim presence in the continent that brings with it the demand for accommodation of Islamic culture — including Shariah, which is totally incompatible with modern Europe’s liberal and secular values — and the fear among an increasing number of Europeans that such accommodation is already adversely affecting their own culture.

There is invariably politics involved in this trial. Wilders has shrewdly tapped into the fears of a population sensing peril with the unchecked nature of immigration from the Arab-Islamic countries.

Consequently, his party has been making electoral gains among Dutch voters that might place it in the strategic position of either forming the government or being part of a ruling coalition.

Wilders claims he is being prosecuted for his political convictions. “The freedom of speech is on the verge of collapsing. If a politician is not allowed to criticize an ideology anymore, this means that we are lost, and it will lead to the end of our freedom,” he said.

The spectre of Muslim-led violence in Europe since 9/11 is real, not imagined. Too much has occurred with unsettling frequency for any serious person to discount more of the same occurring under the excuse that Islam has been reviled and Muslims are victimized by bigots such as Wilders and those who drew and published the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

In such circumstances, Dutch and European opponents of Wilders, not necessarily being sympathetic to Muslim grievances, hold the view that freedom of speech cannot be licence for irresponsible and egregious abuse of what is held sacred by another people.

Muslims generally, given their cultural baggage, might not appreciate the history surrounding the struggle to establish freedom of speech as one of the cornerstones of modern, liberal, secular and democratic Europe.

But the Dutch court and Wilders’ opponents should know better how free speech becomes meaningless when constrained or abridged, and thus weakens the foundation of free society.

As a Muslim myself, I find Wilders views unacceptable, but I find it more loathsome that a democratic society should prosecute him for what he thinks and says.

The Dutch court has it backwards. It should make it abundantly clear to Muslims, or anyone else, that violence under any pretence will be dealt forcefully by the state.

In this instance, Wilders is politically right as Ronald Dworkin, an American philosopher, has argued: “The only right you don’t have in a democracy is the right not to be offended.”

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