“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire
It’s 8:45 a.m. on the morning of November 2, 2004, and the streets are crowded. Nice day out. Suddenly the man in front of you is blindsided by an attacker, shot, and repeatedly stabbed. He is able to crawl across the street in a futile attempt to escape. The attacker, a man in a long robe known as a djelleba, takes out his butcher knife and slits his victim’s throat. He then stabs him again, this time lodging on the victim’s body a note, a part of which reads: “Islam will be victorious through the blood of the martyrs. They will spread its light in every dark corner of this earth and it will drive evil with the sword if necessary back into its dark hole.”
What was the victim’s offence, that he deserved such nasty fate? Well, he made a movie critical of Islam’s treatment of women.
But here’s the catch: On what city’s streets do you think this might have happened? Islamabad? Kabul? Tehran? No.
And what did the Queen of the Netherlands do? She skipped the funeral and instead visited a Moroccan community centre, the nationality of the assailant, to express solidarity.
Look now, four and a half years later, at Amsterdam, that temple of liberal freedom. Last week, a Dutch court demanded that Geert Wilders, a controversial member of Parliament, be charged “for inciting hatred and discrimination, based on comments by him in various media on Muslims and their beliefs.”
Some background: Wilders made a short film last year called Fitna, which, according to a Turkish newspaper, is Arabic for “disagreement and division among people.” The 16-minute, amusingly low-budget film interspersed scenes of Islam-inspired carnage with rather bellicose and (arguably) cherry-picked verses from the Koran. The film caused a massive international row; the Dutch government supplied its embassies and consulates around the world with evacuation plans in the event of emergency.
Afraid of repeating the events that unfolded in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy, they then told him to shut his mouth. He didn’t shut his mouth. So they’re hauling his ass off to jail.
Saith the court: “Mr. Wilders’s views constitute a criminal offence. [He] has insulted Islamic worshippers by attacking the symbols of the Islamic faith.”
Repugnant and impolite though Wilders’s foolish statements may be, surely we can all agree that his illiberal transgressions are hardly worse than those of this censorious court?
John Stuart Mill writes in his seminal essay, “On Liberty,” that when a society restricts free speech it is really the society itself that suffers: “Unless [the received opinion] is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will…be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”
I suppose we can consider that the “received opinion” the Dutch court is trying to protect is religious plurality. Mill goes on: “The meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”
We do both disservice and disrespect to Islam when we handle it with kid gloves; we impeach the integrity of religious plurality when we preserve it in a padded playroom.
Of course Geert Wilders is a schmuck. In 2007, he wrote a column in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant saying that the Koran should be banned. He’s no better. And of course, he provokes just to get a rise out of people, not just Muslims. He knows what he’s doing.
Still, nothing changes. Alas, the debate here is not about Islam, but freedom of expression. Banning books is never okay. Neither is prosecuting someone merely for “inciting discrimination.” Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, I’m looking at you.
Please don’t rely on my brief introduction to the case. Look it up for yourself, and see how you feel about it. Your reaction will say a lot about the content of your character. To quote Christopher Hitchens, “I don’t ask what people’s politics are. I ask what their principles are.”
Ricky’s column appears Monday. Send schmucks and freedoms to firstname.lastname@example.org.