Geert Wilders is the latest in a lengthening roster of Europeans who have been criminally prosecuted for criticizing Islam. Under the slogans of stopping “Islamophobia” and banning “defamation” or “insult” of Islam, for two decades a concerted demand has been made for the West to enforce Islamic blasphemy rules, as is customary in certain member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The Netherlands has been among the many EU states struggling to comply. In the name of liberalism, it has enacted laws criminalizing “hate speech,” with grossly illiberal results. A sample of the Dutch cases shows that the desire to protect minorities is a self-deluding piety in these circumstances. What really lies at the root of these vaguely defined and arbitrarily adjudicated cases is fear of Muslim violence.
One of the earliest such Western cases occurred in the Netherlands in 1992, a few years after Iran’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie triggered murders of “blasphemers” connected with his book The Satanic Verses. A Muslim cabaret artist of Pakistani background, “Zola F,” was found guilty of authoring an unflattering book about Muslim immigration, entitled The Impending Ruin of the Netherlands, Country of Gullible Fools. This created the anomaly of a white court condemning a brown immigrant for “racist hate speech.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim of African heritage who became a Dutch parliamentarian, was similarly prosecuted. She was charged for criticizing the Islamic teaching on killing homosexuals. Already known for her role in co-directing Submission (the film on abuses against Muslim women that led to the 2004 murder by a Muslim extremist of her co-director, Theo Van Gogh), she announced plans for a sequel on the treatment of homosexuals in Islam. This prompted the Netherlands’ main Muslim lobby to register a complaint that her remarks were “blasphemous and have been received with a great deal of pain by the Muslim community.” In 2005, after two years of legal proceedings for “incitement” to hatred, during which time she received numerous death threats and had to go into hiding, a court finally decided that although she had “sought the borders of the acceptable,” her speech did not warrant prohibition, and she was let off.
Hate-speech arrests occurred in the aftermath of the Van Gogh murder. When an artist in Rotterdam painted a street mural that included the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” next to the date of Van Gogh’s murder, a local mosque leader complained to police that the message was “racist.” The police, on orders of the mayor, sandblasted the mural and arrested a television reporter at the scene and destroyed his film. Another Dutch man hung in his window a poster for a far-right movement that stated, “Stop the tumor that is Islam. Theo has died for us. Who will be next?” After being convicted by two lower courts, he finally prevailed on appeal.
Widespread Muslim violence and protest over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed has put Dutch officials on high alert for provocative caricaturists. In 2008, after an Internet monitoring group reported him to authorities for cartoons deemed insulting to Muslims, the edgy Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot was arrested. Police seized his computer’s hard drive and cartoon sketches. The cartoons in question opposed Muslim immigration in various tasteless ways. Nekschot remains under suspicion of “insulting people on the basis of their race or belief, and possibly also of inciting hate,” and could face two years in prison or a $25,000 fine if prosecuted. During the course of this case, it was revealed that the Dutch government had established an “Interdepartmental Working Group on Cartoons,” apparently to apprise officials of any drawings that Muslims could find insulting.
The Wilders case is not unique, but it is important. It demonstrates the continued willingness of authorities in Europe’s most liberal countries to regulate the content of speech on Islam in order to placate Muslim blasphemy demands. Few such cases end in conviction, but their chilling effect on free speech within and on Islam continues to widen.
— Nina Shea directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-authored the forthcoming book Silenced (Oxford University Press), on contemporary blasphemy rules.