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Fury in Holland Over Wilders Prosecution

Why would a nation with a long free-speech tradition make "insult" a crime?

by
Michael van der Galien

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January 27, 2009 - 12:00 am
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When controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders decided to make Fitna, his hard-hitting movie about Islam, he knew it could lead to big problems. First, he could be prosecuted for insulting a group of believers: Muslims. Second, his film could create a major international controversy, possibly resulting in major riots abroad and at home.

To do what he could to ensure limited fallout, Wilders made the movie in such a way that he could not easily be accused of insulting Muslims personally. Although the film is critical of Islam and depicts it in a highly negative light, it is not negative about individual Muslims. It is a loophole used by Wilders and many before him.

Some Dutch Muslim organizations nonetheless responded with outrage to Fitna and asked Dutch prosecutors to file charges against Wilders. Prosecutors looked into it but concluded that they did not have a strong case against Wilders. They informed the organizations and individuals involved about their decision, and that was the end of it. Or so most thought.

The organizations, made up of immigrants, did not take no for an answer and went to court. They asked the judge to force the justice department to prosecute Wilders on the basis of anti-insulting statutes as established by Dutch law. To everyone’s surprise, the judges agreed with the groups and ordered prosecutors to file charges against Wilders, the most controversial and well-known member of the Dutch parliament.

Wilders rightfully responded with outrage to the news. It signaled, he said, the end of freedom and the end of the long-standing Dutch tradition of welcoming controversial figures with controversial opinions. The country that was once a safe haven for figures like Spinoza, who were not tolerated in any other country, now prosecutes those with strong opinions. It is something our forefathers could not have dreamed of.

He was not alone. Dutchmen and foreigners were angered by the court ruling, declaring that no self-respecting society would ever agree to prosecute a man who simply says what he believes. Especially a man who, although often not correct, has the backing of a sizable part of the population and has proved able to discuss those issues worrying society tremendously in a rational manner.

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