Dutch politician Geert Wilders had been brought before a Dutch court for his aggressive, offensive, and abusive language against Islam. On June 23, the judge called his language aggressive, but not in violation of Dutch law. The Dutch Daily Trouw argued that this verdict further reduces the limits to freedom of expression in The Netherlands. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what Wilders’ opponents had hoped to achieve. In fact, some of his opponents, fearing these results, were opposed to bringing him to court in the first place, saying that Wilders should be confronted in public discussions and debates rather than in the courts.
Freedom of expression goes very far in The Netherlands. However, it only makes sense if discussions are rational. Distorting one’s faith with offensive language ends the possibility of rational discussions and serves no good purpose.
I will provide here some examples of Geert Wilders’ statements, as discussed in court.
Statement 1: “The core of the problem is the fascist Islam, the sick ideology of Allah and Muhammad as written in the Islamic Mein Kampf: the Qur’an. The texts in the Qur’an leave little to imagination.”
Statement 2: “The tsunami of a strange culture to us that becomes more dominant here. This should be put to a halt.”
Statement 3: “The demographic composition of the population is the largest problem of The Netherlands. I am referring to all who come to the Netherlands and reproduce here. If you look at the figures and the development of these…Muslims will move from the large cities to the countryside. We have to stop this tsunami of Islamization. This hits us in our heart, in our identity, in our culture. If we do not resist then all other points of my program will be in vain.”
The court ruled that these statements were completely legal, since any critique of religion is protected under Dutch law. In the court’s estimation, these were not calls for hatred against any one group of people, but simply critiques of the religion of Islam. The court also stated that while Wilders’ language was rude, rudeness lies within the limits of freedom of expression.
This, then, is a freedom of expression that allows mudslinging. Why else would someone refer to Islam as “fascist” or compare the Qur’an with Mein Kampf? Islam is not fascist and the Qur’an is not similar to Nazi propaganda. These comparisons amount to nothing more than slander. Why is Geert Wilders making these rude comparisons? Why did the American pastor Terry Jones burn the Quran? These are deliberate attempts to offend people of another faith. They have nothing to do with expressing differences in opinion or offering “religious critiques.”
Mudslinging does not contribute to a debate about content. On the contrary, it ends all discussions and worse, provokes others to engage in similar actions. Is anyone surprised that this is the case? Many organizations (including MEMRI, and others) are dedicated to continuously highlighting the angry responses of Arab Muslims to that which offends their religious sensitivities. While I cannot justify the violent reactions that sometimes take place, I do not think these organizations should focus on angry Muslim responses without also pointing out the mudslinging and biased policies in the West that provoke these responses.
Christians from Egypt and other predominantly Muslim countries often reference statements by Muslims denigrating Christianity and Christians. Like them, I do not like to see these inflammatory statements. But if we expect Muslims to speak with respect about Christianity, then should not Christians do the same in their conversations about Islam? I therefore agree with Bishop Yuhannā Qultah, who stressed last week the importance of Christians respecting the prophet Muhammad and Islam. This does not imply belief and it does not mean that differences should not be discussed. It simply means that the language used should not be aggressive or offensive.
Now of course I disagree with the violent reactions of Muslims against the Danish cartoons, for example. But unfortunately, people who are insufficiently capable of responding to vicious oral attacks on their faith tend to respond with violence, not knowing how else to show their frustration.
Dr. Hassan Wagieh, an Azhar scholar and my personal friend, argued a few years back that engaging in public polemics about religious differences serves no good purpose, but only creates anger and frustrations. Religious differences should obviously be discussed, but in a rational way and between scholars. The approach needs to remain rational, and not turned into emotional events that stir up negative sentiments.
The Dutch judges ruled that critique on any religion is fully legal, but I do not consider whipping up religious sensitivities and emotions with distorted and false claims to be a valid critique of a religion.
Furthermore, the Dutch judges also refused to look at the way in which Wilders’ statements have been received by Muslims, ignoring the significance of religion for a deeply religious people.
I believe in freedom of expression and the freedom to publicly disagree over religious beliefs, but I do not believe in the freedom to abuse and offend. Sadly, the Dutch judges do not recognize this difference. This certainly would have been different only fifty years ago, but Dutch society has since changed, becoming far less religious. With these changes, it now seems permissible for people such as Wilders to hurl abuses at people with deep religious values. Freedom of expression has sadly degraded into freedom to offend the other.
Statements 2 and 3 above show the real fear of Wilders. He sees great and rapid changes in Dutch society that has come with large numbers of people from different cultures entering The Netherlands. Many mosques have been erected and changed the appearance of many Dutch cities. In cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Den Haag, Islam and Muslims are very visible. Many people remember the days when the number of Dutch Muslims was only very small. They have witnessed rapid changes and fear traditional Western values (not necessarily Christian) will change. I understand being concerned with this rapid change, but totally disagree with the manner in which Wilders responds to these valid concerns by exploiting existing fears and increasing them with his wildly aggressive claims.
Rapid changes in societies have always led to resistance - this is nothing new. But societies were always able to adapt to changing circumstances. We should learn from these experiences how past migrants have integrated into Dutch society and work towards integrating new migrants, as well.
Integration is, of course, related to numbers as well. If increasingly large amounts of immigrants of a particular mindset tend to flock together in their new country, the integration process will proceed at a slower pace. But offending that group of migrants also slows the process of integration.
We thus don’t need people engaging in offensive verbal attacks on others.
Please also read about the freedom of expression:
• Freedom of Expression without boundaries? (1) by Cornelis Hulsman, AWR, 2005, week 43, art. 40.
• Freedom of Expression without boundaries? (2) by Adam Hannestad, AWR, 2005, week 43, art. 41.
About Geert Wilders:
• Cornelis Hulsman, Bāhir Dukhān, The use of the Qur’ānic verses Wilders quoted in ten years of Egyptian Arab media, AWR, 2008, week 2, art. 4.
• Hassan Muhammad Wagih, Uncovering and refuting Wilders’ ’Fitna’ propaganda model, AWR, 2008, week 2, art. 5.
• Hassan Muhammad Wagih, About the Islamophobic (Wilder’s) disinformation trap, AWR, 2008, week 2, art. 6.
• Fadel Soliman, “Fitna is greater than killing;” Exposing Wilders’ manipulation of the Qur’ān, AWR, 2008, week 2, art. 7.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.