As the Geert Wilders case goes into pre-trial, National Review Online asked a panel of experts: Is there any legitimate reason he’s in court? What are the implications of such a trial being held, nevermind its outcome? The following are the responses of Paul Marshall and Nina Shea.
The American media’s silence about the Geert Wilders trial is puzzling — the trial is explosive, much more so than most of America’s perennial “trials of the century.” Wilders, leader of the Freedom party, is arguably the Netherlands’s most popular politician, but for years he has had to live in safe houses, including on military bases. He now faces the possibility of imprisonment on charges of “group insult” and “incitement to hatred,” as defined by articles 137 (c) and (d) of the Dutch penal code, for his public speeches and op-eds criticizing Islam.
Apart from its direct and immediate threat to free speech, the trial exposes the growth of political violence and repression in the Netherlands, long lauded as the most tolerant country in Europe, if not the world. Thirty years ago, I interviewed then–prime minister Dries van Agt simply by strolling into his unguarded parliamentary office and asking his secretary if he could spare me a couple of minutes. Now it is a country where politicians and artists are targeted by vigilantes and the state.
In 2002, popular Dutch politician and gay activist Pim Fortuyn was murdered by an environmentalist who took offense at Fortuyn’s criticism of Islam. In 2004, one of the country’s leading documentarians, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered, and almost beheaded, on the streets of Amsterdam in retaliation for a film he made about Islam (Submission). In 2006, a gathering of scholars and commentators critical of Islam and Islamism led the Dutch security service to invoke an alert level just short of “national emergency.” In 2008, the prospective release of Wilders’s film Fitna led to special sessions of the Dutch cabinet. The country’s best-known member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for many years had to live in hiding, and even briefly fled the country. This is the situation in the heart of liberal Europe.
The media’s silence is also disturbing since it indicates their reluctance, even fear, when it comes to grappling with the West’s increasing censorship of anything that might be deemed offensive to some Muslims. So far, the effects in the U.S. are small — such as the Yale University Press’s removing the famous Danish cartoons from a book about those same cartoons — but they betray a mindset common to much of Europe: preemptive self-censorship. Media outlets that defended and lauded Salman Rushdie two decades ago, when the Ayatollah Khomeini called for him to be killed over The Satanic Verses, now cringe and shy away from those facing similar threats.
Within much of the Muslim world, political and religious debate, especially amongst Muslims, is shut down in the name of preventing anything that could “insult Islam.” Unless we strenuously defend Wilders’s right — and our own right — to speak, especially to criticize and offend, we will stumble down the same path.
In 1989, Iran’s supreme leader issued a blasphemy fatwa against Salman Rushdie in London. It was the opening volley in a new Muslim push — later taken up by the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference— to force the West to adopt Islamic-blasphemy strictures within its borders. Intimidated, the West has begun to comply. It does so mostly through self-censorship and by prosecuting those who do speak out under religious-hate-speech laws such as those invoked in the Netherlands against Wilders. These laws are the West’s proxy for blasphemy bans.
The danger has not been mass imprisonment — actual convictions have been few — but the creation of a general deterrent to criticism of Islam or anything Islamic. Europe’s leaders likely believe that banning religious hate speech is a small price to pay for greater security; if so, they are wrong. The premise that religion can be easily compartmentalized, relegated to an autonomous sphere separate from politics and culture, is a misconception. Europe’s present path has profound implications for scholarship, political progress, social and economic development, and national security. This chilling of speech, aggravated by Muslim violence, erodes fundamental freedoms of speech and religion and threatens the West’s very identity.
Such laws will not bring social harmony. Anti-blasphemy pushes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere are often driven by implacable ideologues and political opportunists. Muslims who protest the radicals’ agenda are the first to be silenced. As Malaysia’s former finance minister observed, religious hate-speech laws all depend on the “elastic goo” of public sentiment. A nation that entertains such cases will be forced to go from issue to issue, “hostage to the brinkmanship of sensitivities.”