Thursday, 28 January 2010

The trial of Geert Wilders and freedom of speech

Eight days ago, right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders went on trial, charged with incitement and discrimination against Muslims. According to the Times, "Wilders, who has made no secret of his ambition to become Prime Minister, has called his indictment a political trial but the Amsterdam Court of Appeal decided that it was in the public interest to prosecute him because his comments have been “so insulting to Muslims”."

Wilders is something of a hero to those who believe that Islam represents the greatest threat to freedom and civilisation, not least because of the martyr status attributed to him. This trial comes after the debacle last year in which Home Secretary Jacqui Smith attempted to ban him from entering Britain only, in an irony no doubt lost on anti-immigrant groups who support him, to have the decision overturned by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.

Douglas Murray of the Telegraph sums up the sentiments of the Dutch MP's supporters;
There is nothing hyperbolic in stating that a trial which has just started in Holland will have unparalleled significance for the future of Europe. It is not just about whether our culture will survive, but whether we are even allowed to state the fact that it is being threatened.


The Dutch courts charge that Wilders ‘on multiple occasions, at least once, (each time) in public, orally, in writing or through images, intentionally offended a group of people, i.e. Muslims, based on their religion’.

I’m sorry? Whoa there, just a minute. The man’s on trial because he ‘offended a group of people’? I get offended by all sorts of people. I get offended by very fat people. I get offended by very thick people. I get offended by very sensitive people. I get offended by the crazy car-crash of vowels in Dutch verbs. But I don’t try to press charges.

Yet, crazily, this is exactly what is going on now in a Dutch courtroom. If found guilty of this Alice-in-Wonderland accusation of ‘offending a group of people’, Wilders faces up to two years in prison.

If anyone doubts the surreal nature of the proceedings now going on they should simply look through the summons which is available in an English translation here. It shows that Wilders is on trial for his film Fitna. And for various things he has said in articles and interviews in the Dutch press.
The trial, then, is one against freedom of speech. "The most popular elected politician in Holland is on trial for saying things which the Dutch people are clearly, in large part, in agreement with.  Things which, even if you don’t agree with them, must be able to be said."

It is no secret that I disagree entirely with the notion that the West either is or should be at war with Islam. Islam will not dominate the world, and those so preoccupied with it are usually motivated by either some form of bigotry or by the fact that they are - not to put too fine a point on it - batshit crazy. There are serious issues to be raised with Islamic countries, from the subjugation of women, the oppression of homosexuals, and suppression of basic freedoms to the very fact that Thoecracies still exist in the 21st century. And preachers of hateful and extremist doctrines, such as Anjem Choudary, need to be condemned as vociferously as are Christian hate preachers from the US and the fascists of the far-right.

But none of this amounts to a culture war. It certainly does not amount to a negation of workers' struggles, anti-capitalism, and anti-imperialism. And it is no excuse for being taken in by the crusading rhetoric of the US and Britain as they wage wars for control of strategic markets and resources. Wilders is no hero, boldly warning Europe as its culture is threatened from within. He is a reactionary with an axe to grind, dragging us away from the real struggles we face into the murky waters of single-issue identity politics.

However, just as his views are a distraction from reality, so is the legislative opposition to his views. Yes, he should be opposed, but that can be done with relative ease using only reason. As with the proscription of Islam4UK or the legal measures against the British National Party's "whites-only" constitution in Britain, his prosecution benefits only the state by granting it more power to suppress freedom of thought, speech, and association.

Even the most hateful and inflammatory of opinions, short of direct incitement to violence, must be recognised as within the mandate of free expression. Though, of course, agitating for a free and equal society requires that such views are opposed, and attempts to enforce them met with physical resistance, there must be no recourse to censorship.

If they are not universal, extended to even the most loathsome elements of society, basic freedoms such as freedom of speech mean nothing at all.