Acquitted of Political Incorrectitudes

Acquitted of Political Incorrectitudes

By David Warren - June 26, 2011

The acquittal of Geert Wilders by an Amsterdam appeals court is a significant victory for free speech everywhere. This is the prominent Dutch politician who was charged with inciting hatred against Muslims.

Prime evidence was a documentary film he had produced, entitled, "Fitna" ("Ordeal," in Arabic). It consisted of a display of actual quotations from the Koran, visually juxtaposed with unpleasant news footage from all over the world, of terrorist acts and Muslims rioting. It concluded with scenes from 9/11. The argument was explicitly that the Koran enjoins such behaviour, and Wilders himself has repeatedly compared Islam's scriptural text with Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler.

I think this is unreasonable, but that is beside the point.

Wilders is the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, support for which has been growing quickly in the Netherlands. Since the last election it has held the balance of power in the Dutch Parliament, and it is not entirely inconceivable that it could win the next election outright; although the consensus is that the personal popularity of Wilders, which sustains his party, has peaked. At a certain point, even supporters get sick of looking at his shock blond hair and smiling cherubic boyish face.

His ability to articulate his position, however, and his refusal to back off from controversial remarks, in the face not only of legal prosecution and media execration, but of numerous quite plausible death threats (he requires 24-hour police protection), have made him formidable.

Most characters, uttering political incorrectitudes of so brash a nature, quickly respond to public intimidation, and find a way back into the closet. By refusing retreat or compromise, Wilders has changed the flow of the game. It is now his adversaries who are wondering if they may have "missed a wonderful opportunity to shut up."

Moreover, the use of such epithets as "far right," in almost every media description of Wilders, has backfired, badly. Except for his views on Islam, the man is a typical, post-modern, quintessentially Dutch, nanny-state liberal. He supports same-sex marriage, and passes every other "progressive" litmus test. He is not much interested in the fiscal questions, and were it not for his strong views on immigration, he would make a dream coalition partner, willing to go along with almost anything else his partners might propose.

His very point is that all these "liberal" things are threatened by the "Islamization" of the Netherlands, and of Europe. He argues, for instance, that the welfare state puts itself at risk when it becomes a magnet to unenterprising immigrants. One might argue that it was collapsing into bankruptcy even without this additional loading, but the point is not in itself illiberal.

So to be clear: Wilders's views on Islam alone were in the dock. But, hooo, were they in the dock.

How could he possibly be acquitted, given a Dutch "hate law" that seemed to have been designed especially for people like him? For if one is making a direct connection between the doctrines of Islam, and terrorist violence, how is one not inciting "hatred" against Muslims?

Free speech has a long history in the Netherlands, and thus defenders from some unlikely sources. In court, Wilders had many supporters who by no means like him. And even the prosecutors were extremely cautious in representing the charges. In the end, even they recommended acquittal. The issue came down not to any prospective jail time, but to whether the court should impose a symbolic fine of one euro. In the end, it did not.

The court accepted arguments that go a little beyond what I have read in mass-media coverage. It is generally reported that the court made a distinction between attacking Islamic doctrines, which is fair play, and attacking Muslims as members of an "ethnic group," which is not. This it did, but it was only the preamble.

The decision went further in holding that if proactive public policies such as "multiculturalism" and open immigration are to be freely discussed, opponents must be allowed to discuss them freely. Advocates of such policies have no right to decide which part of their opponents' arguments are "out of bounds." And Wilders was neither inventing facts gratuitously, nor encouraging violence. Indeed, his allegation against Islam was that it advocates violence as a means to advancing its own interests; and that this in itself must be resisted by those opposed to violence as a political tactic.

It is extremely easy to understand why Muslims don't like Wilders, and why most "left-liberal" people don't like him either. But not liking someone is not grounds for denying him free speech. At least, not yet, in any western legal system. The whole point of free speech is that it belongs to people you don't like. And the remedy for views found to be offensive, is to find better arguments.

© The Ottawa Citizen

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