Geert Wilders acquittal sparks free speech debate

By Thomas Bangay

“A beautiful day for freedom of speech in the Netherlands.” This was Geert Wilders’ verdict on his acquittal by an Amsterdam court on Thursday of all charges of hate speech. Wilders has advocated a moratorium on Muslim immigration to the Netherlands; compared the Qur’an to Mein Kampf; called Islam Europe’s Trojan Horse, which would ultimately lead to the end of Dutch civilisation; and declared that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. His 2008 short film, Fitna, portrayed Islam as a violent religion founded on principles of racism, sexism and subjugation.

Wilders’ attitudes have seen him banned from entering the UK, and the subject of a Fatwa from Al Qaeda; however, he remains a pivotal figure in Dutch politics. His PVV is the third largest party in the Netherlands, casting Wilders in the role of kingmaker. His party’s support props up Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right coalition, and Rutte moved quickly to support the court’s decision, tweeting: “The ruling is clear … it’s great news for Geert Wilders, with whom we’re co-operating well.”

Wilders’ prosecution reached the Amsterdam court of first instance following its referral by the appeals court in 2009. The court’s decision turned on the fact that Wilders’ statements attacked Islam as a religion, and not its individual followers. Criticism aimed at the religion is deemed to be legal, albeit shocking and offensive. The verdict has divided many commentators; some prize freedom of speech above all, arguing that “odious demagoguery” has its place in the public discourse, and is best defeated at the electoral booth. Others call it “a slap in the face for Muslims.”

Both arguments are compelling, and the right to freedom of speech has always come with a sharp edge. Wilders will most likely have to continue his defence in the near future. The unsuccessful plaintiffs are considering the appropriate forum for their next prosecution, with the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations both possibilities.

However, the case also highlights the undeniable shift to the right of Dutch politics in recent years: authorities recently revealed their intention to delay any decision on the admission of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen passport-free zone until next year. Programmes to help integrate recent immigrants into Dutch society are to end, and a new legislative proposal will ban the religious slaughter of meat. The government is even attempting to restrict the use of cannabis in Amsterdam’s coffee shops to Dutch citizens; however, the town’s council has other ideas.

In any case, Wilders’ plight and popularity only serve to emphasise the fact that populist centre-right politics is coming to dominate the debate in many European states; Denmark and Finland have also seen significant electoral gains made by leaders espousing anti-immigration rhetoric.

However convenient it might have been for Wilders’ political opponents to have the judiciary silence him, they must face the reality that his views, however unsettling, are gaining traction with the electorate, and will have to be met with a public debate, rather than judicial censorship.

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