Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders goes on trial today in the Netherlands, for ‘hate speech’:
Prosecutors say Wilders has incited hate against Muslims, pointing to a litany of quotes and remarks he has made in recent years. In one opinion piece he wrote “I’ve had enough of Islam in the Netherlands; let not one more Muslim immigrate,” adding “I’ve had enough of the Quran in the Netherlands: Forbid that fascist book..”
The flamboyant, bleach-blond politician also has called for taxing clothing commonly worn by Muslims, such as headscarves — or “head rags,” as he once called them — because they “pollute” the Dutch landscape.
He may be best known for the 2008 short film “Fitna,” which offended Muslims around the world by juxtaposing Quranic verses with images of terrorism by Islamic radicals.
The case is highly charged politically. Wilders’ opponents accuse him of racism and right-wing extremism, while Wilders claims that the growth of Islam in the Netherlands is analogous to the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Such a criminal charge could not be brought in the US, where any speech that is not direct incitement to violence or otherwise physically dangerous, no matter how obnoxious, is permitted.
Nevertheless, as I’ve written, there are informal limitations on legally permitted expression in the US. When a Florida man announced that he would burn Qurans in public, enormous pressure was brought on him to persuade him against carrying out his threat.
More commonly, explicit expression of racial, ethnic or (to a slightly lesser extent) religious prejudice is considered sufficiently offensive as to mark the speaker as a kind of moral defective, who may be treated with extreme disrespect and whose views may be ignored. More than one politician or celebrity has had his or her career derailed by public remarks that were considered racist, antisemitic, etc.
Interestingly, it seems that one of the criteria used in the Netherlands to determine whether speech constitutes a formal crime is also relevant here where the ‘crime’ is informal:
Prosecutors were initially reluctant to bring Wilders’ case to court, saying his remarks appeared directed toward Islam as an ideology rather than intended to insult Muslims as a group.
In other words, it is permissible to criticize ideology, but not to insult a group. I think this is a poor way of putting it. Should we distinguish between political and religious ideologies? And who determines what is insulting? Some groups are notoriously sensitive.
I would say this: it is permissible to criticize an ideology of any kind — political or religious — when the behavior that follows, or would follow, from putting the ideology into practice is unacceptable.
For example, it’s legitimate to criticize Marxism by pointing to the totalitarian behavior of Marxists when they have achieved power. It’s not legitimate to criticize Catholics for believing in transubstantiation (the belief that the substance of a communion wafer is identical to the body of Christ) because there is no harmful behavior that results from this belief.
Traditional antisemitism gains force by including conspiracy theories, as in the Protocols of the elders of Zion. Of course, real historical research effectively refutes these theories, which has gone a long way in discrediting antisemitism in the West (where people pay attention to such things).
So in regard to criticizing Islam, the question is this: are there legitimate reasons to think that the behavior that can result from Islamic ideology might be undesirable?
I think we have lots of evidence to support this: the Quran itself, statements of Islamic authorities in regard to their expansionist intentions, and the actions of their followers in the name of Islam, both historically and in recent times.
A distinction is often drawn between ‘moderate Islam’ and ‘radical Islamism’, in which the latter is defined as an ideology which aggressively tries to impose Islamic law on as wide an area as possible, either by force or by political action. Wilders rejects such a distinction.
Wilders argues that the Quran, the ultimate touchstone for Islamic belief, explicitly calls for Islam to dominate, and classifies those who do not accept every word of it as apostates. ‘Moderation’ is therefore un-Islamic. He quotes important Muslims — like Turkish PM Erdoğan — who also reject the distinction, saying “Islam is Islam.”
I will add that some purported moderates — like Feisal Abdul Rauf, who Trudy Rubin called “a proud American and a moderate Muslim” — nevertheless cannot bring themselves to condemn their more operationally oriented brothers. This implies that the underlying ideology is the same, even if there is a disagreement on tactics.
Islam is an ideology with consequences. Wilders ought not to be convicted — and critics of Islam in America ought to be allowed to speak and be taken seriously.