How can we best combat the anti-immigrant populists who are setting the political pace in many European countries? This month, a verdict is due in the trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders for making anti-Islamic statements — such as calling the Koran a “fascist book” that should be banned. At the same time, the Netherlands’ center-right coalition government depends for its survival on Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which won more than 15% of the vote in the last general election. Wilders’ price included a commitment to a burka ban. In the Netherlands, as elsewhere in Europe, center-right parties have been trying to win back voters who have turned to such anti-foreigner populists by adopting toned-down versions of their rhetoric and policies.
So the courts are being asked to do what the politicians won’t. This is the wrong way round, for reasons both of free-speech principle and political prudence.
That is what the Dutch prosecutors seem to have thought too. “No doubt his words are hurtful and offensive for a large number of Muslims,” they said, when a prosecution was first suggested, but “freedom of expression fulfills an essential role in a democratic society.” However, a group of prominent lawyers, NGOs and interest groups got an appeals court to reverse this decision. The court argued that “by attacking the symbols of the Muslim religion, he also insulted Muslim believers.”
That sentence perfectly exposes the problem of principle: a blurring of the line between attacking the believers and criticizing the belief. For we must remain free to criticize any belief, even in extreme terms. Religion is not like skin color. There is no rational argument against the color of someone’s skin. There are important, rational arguments to be made against Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Scientology or any other belief system. Prosecutions like Wilder’s have a chilling effect on discussion of beliefs.
If Wilders were inciting people to violence, then he should be prosecuted. But so far as I can see, he has steered just the right side of that line. So long as that is true, I defend his right to say deeply offensive things, on the same grounds that I defend a woman’s right to choose to wear the burka.
Beyond the argument of principle, there is a strong practical one. This prosecution enables the defendant to present himself as a martyr for free speech. Wilders ended his final statement to the court with a heroic quotation from George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
This from the man who calls for the holy book of some 1.5 billion people to be banned! As a free-speech champion, Wilders takes the gold medal for hypocrisy. Not only does he want the burka and the Koran to be banned, but at a speech delivered in the House of Lords in London last year, he said that throughout the West, we should forbid the construction of any new mosques.
And it’s not just Muslims he wants to gag; it’s also his own critics. Under pressure from Wilders’ Freedom Party, a distinguished cultural historian and commentator, Thomas von der Dunk, was recently disinvited from giving a lecture in honor of a Dutch anti-Nazi resistance hero, after it became known that he proposed to compare the Freedom Party’s portrayal of Muslims to “the way in which Jews were smeared in the 1930s.” A punk song referring to Wilders as the “Mussolini of the Low Countries” was banned from a festival celebrating the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazism. A left-wing broadcaster took down from its website a cartoon showing Wilders as a concentration camp guard after what it described as threats to its staff.
In short, the Freedom Party’s idea of freedom is that Wilders must be free to call the Koran fascist, but no one should be free to call Wilders a fascist.
Yet the center-right coalition in the Netherlands does not stand up to this intolerance. Yes, the preface to the coalition agreement has one sentence saying that the governing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and Christian Democratic Alliance “see Islam as a religion and will treat it accordingly — unlike the [Freedom Party].” But, as in many other European countries, that doesn’t stop them from appeasing the illiberal, anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim populists, just as mainstream center-left parties have too often bent to appease illiberal, self-appointed “Muslim community” voices.
This week, a Council of Europe working group of which I am a member suggests a different approach, arguing that European societies should be rigorous in demanding and enforcing equal liberty under a single law. But messages of intolerance and xenophobia, such as those purveyed by Wilders, should be combated in the court of public opinion, not the court of law. Our motto is “minimize compulsion, maximize persuasion.” Mainstream politicians, intellectuals, journalists, businesspeople, sports heroes — all should mobilize to convince the public that so long as people abide by the ground rules of a free society, they have as much right to be full and equal citizens as anyone else, whether they be Muslim, Christian, atheist or Zoroastrian. And that we can make this work.
Wilders should be free to call the Koran fascist, Von der Dunk should be free to compare Wilders to the Nazis — and politicians should stop hiding behind the robes of judges. Instead, they must get out there and fight the good fight themselves.
Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford University, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing editor to the Opinion page.