The trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders has been altogether an extraordinary event. He is accused of saying rude and even hateful things about Islam, the prophet Mohammed, and the Koran — and people are not supposed to talk like that, in public at least. The case against him appears to be coming undone: Prosecutors have requested that the charges be dropped, but the final decision remains in the hands of the court.
A great deal turns on the outcome of this case, for the Netherlands, for Europe, and — not least — for the Muslim world.
Free speech is indispensable in a free society, and many a great man has fought for that principle, some of them going to prison for it. It is a longstanding if hard-won principle in the West that Wilders has a fundamental right to make whatever comment he likes about Islam, its prophet, or its scriptures, and so do all of us. To the extent that Dutch law contradicts that principle, it contradicts what is best in Europe’s heritage.
Furthermore, Wilders is an elected parliamentarian, leader of the third-largest party in his country. Public figures not only have a right to speak out, but a duty.
Wilders compares Islam to Nazism, a provocative stance, to be sure. But how should such provocative criticism be received? With open debate, or with the criminalization of opinion? It is extremely pertinent in the Wilders case to ask whether his trial means that Europe’s commitment to freedom is already dead.
Along with free speech, many a great man has also fought for the principle of the separation of powers, whereby issues are decided in the legislature, and courts are there only to ensure the proper application of the law. In the case of Wilders, the judiciary has flirted with imposing political decisions that are quite outside its powers. This is the road to antidemocratic show trials arranged to gag or eliminate anyone whom authority condemns as an enemy of the people.
The Wilders trial has also to be seen in the international context. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) purports to represent, and speak for, all Muslim countries. This body is now campaigning in various forums, including the United Nations, to criminalize all criticism of Islam. Any such privileging of Islam would block all possibility of reform and condemn Muslims to perpetual intellectual stagnation. Freedom of expression for Wilders also means freedom of expression for Muslims.
It is retrograde and shameful that a Dutch court should now be aligned with the OIC in the business of making criticism of Islam punishable by law. And highly dangerous, too.