Free Speech and the Netherlands

| Staff Columnist

My most recent article discussed the First Amendment’s protection of both freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the United States. It may have been somewhat obvious to some that burning the Quran, however stupid, offensive and despicable it may be, falls within the realm of protected freedom of speech. However, Europe has taken a quite different, much more restrictive view on freedom of speech. They tend to make certain speech, referred to vaguely as “hate speech,” punishable under the law, via either a fine or even imprisonment.

The traditional image of the Netherlands has been one of tolerance and inclusion, the epitome of a pluralistic society. However, with the rise to prominence in 2002 of Pim Fortuyn, a charismatic, openly gay politician who criticized Islam as being incompatible with Western values, the Netherlands began to seriously contemplate its future. When asked if he hated Islam, Fortuyn said, “I am in favor of a cold war with Islam. I see Islam as an extraordinary threat, as a hostile religion…[but] I don’t hate Islam. I consider it a backward culture. I have traveled much in the world. And wherever Islam rules, it’s just terrible.”

Fortuyn’s political party led many polls prior to the 2002 election, setting him on a direct course towards becoming prime minister of the Netherlands. But, nine days prior to the scheduled election, Fortuyn was brutally assassinated by Volkert van der Graaf. When questioned, van der Graaf asserted the murder was needed to “protect weaker groups in society and [stop the exploitation of] Muslims for political power.” In actuality, the assassination was committed to deny Fortuyn political power and ostensibly prevent the implementation of his anti-Islamic agenda. However, even without him, Fortuyn’s party won 17 percent of the vote and secured 26 seats in the Dutch Parliament.

After his assassination, few politicians dared criticize the rise of Islam or the apparent incompatibility of Islamic and Western values. Nevertheless, Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament and leader of the Party for Freedom, has issued similar statements. He has controversially stated that many Dutch citizens are fed up with Islam and its influence upon the surrounding environment. According to him, the Dutch do not want, “burqas, headscarves…so-called honor revenge, blaring minarets, female circumcision…abuse of homosexuals…[and] Sharia exams…” Wilders has received numerous death threats and requires round the clock protection. For his safety, his bodyguards relocate him every night, and he cannot receive visitors unless they are carefully screened and escorted at all times.

One would think that, in 21st century Europe, an elected member of the Dutch Parliament could freely speak without fear of being killed. However, Wilders has recieved a far more disturbing fate. A judge ordered the prosecution of Wilders for hate speech, and he is currently on trial in Amsterdam. If convicted, he faces up to a year in prison, though a fine would be more likely.

This ridiculous, almost childish attempt to silence and penalize Wilders for his beliefs, is indicative of the difference between the United States and Europe. It is hard to imagine that this trial would ever be permitted in the United States because speech, however offensive, contributes to society’s development. The free speech of this Dutch MP is worth protecting, and the issues he discusses form a key debate about the identity of the West. A recent editorial in the Washington Times summarized the case and described it as such: “Mr. Wilders is being prosecuted for believing there is something uniquely Dutch under attack that’s worthy of being preserved. The same could be said about that which is Italian, British, German, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, French or American. That Mr. Wilders faces trial for this belief shows some aren’t willing to have this discussion, but all countries will face it eventually.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.