A month ago, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders was considered likely to become the country’s next prime minister. On Friday, he was convicted on hate-speech charges — and became slightly more likely to become the president’s next prime minister.
Wilders is a longtime fixture in the European circles described in the American press with fear and loathing as “far right.” He and his party wish to reduce immigration, especially the immigration of Muslims from Morocco and the Middle East; they want the Netherlands to maintain its national character, which is secular and liberal, and lament the “Islamization” of their society; he is allied with Marine Le Pen in European affairs but also has worked to distance his Freedom party from what he calls “right-wing extremist and racist” parties, such as the anti-immigrant parties in Germany and Hungary that share some of his views.
He has adopted the slogan “Make the Netherlands Great Again,” for some indication of his substance and style.
Wilders was convicted of inciting discrimination and giving group offense, two “crimes” that are observed in much of Europe but that are not properly the stuff of criminal offenses in a country with free speech. While it is worth keeping in mind that Wilders isn’t a consistent defender of the free-speech rights he complains are being here violated — he has advocated banning both the Koran and the building of new mosques in the Netherlands — the laws he has been convicted of violating are absurd and have no place in a civilized, liberal society such as the Netherlands. They are an example of what happens when what we call political correctness is allowed to harden into an unchallengeable orthodoxy and given the power of law. And we ought to keep in mind that our own so-called liberals are eager to enact such “hate speech” laws, and to use them to suppress political ideas they find unpalatable.
The Netherlands has a large and poorly assimilated minority population of Muslim immigrants. They are mostly Sunni, mostly in the cities, and come from a variety of backgrounds: Turkey and Morocco, former Dutch East Indies colonies, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq. They make up about 5 percent of the population, and their numbers include many high-profile figures such as the current mayor of Rotterdam. And they have proved to be a source of social friction: In 2006, the Dutch justice minister inspired a public panic when he suggested that the country might incorporate sharia law if a growing Muslim population supported doing so; the assassination of anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn by a Dutch leftist angered at his “scapegoating” of Muslims intensified tensions, as did the jihadist murder of Theo van Gogh for criticizing Islam, and the subsequent controversy surrounding the immigration of Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali many years earlier.
The Netherlands, in short, has a great deal to talk about when it comes to Islam, immigration, and the future of Dutch society. It is not the only European country having such a discussion.
Driving the discussion underground only ensures that the immigration debate is dominated by irresponsible parties rather than responsible ones, more Jörg Haider and less Pim Fortyyn.
Rational discussion is not possible where free speech is suppressed — which is what is happening in the Netherlands. Driving the discussion underground only ensures that the immigration debate is dominated by irresponsible parties rather than responsible ones, more Jörg Haider and less Pim Fortyyn. The Netherlands has a free-speech tradition older than the country itself (when Galileo’s work could not be published in Florence, it was printed in Amsterdam), a cultural triumph of which it is and deserves to be intensely proud. To abandon that tradition out of the fear that a frank discussion of immigration, culture, terrorism, crime, and religion might hurt some feelings (how could it fail to?) would be to uproot an important part of the Dutch patrimony.
Geert Wilders has something to say. More than a few of the Dutch people are interested in hearing it. A just society protects the rights of minorities, whether they be a minority of 5 percent, like the Dutch Muslims — or the minority of one man with ideas that make people with power uncomfortable. There can be no right to speak where there is a right to not be spoken about or where “giving offense” is a crime. That Dutch culture has reached the point where Islamic habits cannot be criticized without fear of criminal prosecution makes Wilders’s case for him at least as well as he ever has made it for himself.