In Holland, Free Speech on Trial

Imagine if a leader within the tea party movement were able to persuade its members to establish a third political party. Imagine he succeeded--overwhelmingly--and that as their leader he stood a real chance of winning the presidency. Then imagine that in anticipation of his electoral victory, the Democrats and Republicans quickly modified an existing antidiscrimination law so that he could be convicted for statements he made on the campaign trail.

All of this seems impossible in a 21st-century liberal democracy. But it is exactly what is happening in Holland to Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders.

Mr. Wilders came onto the political scene in September 2004 when he broke from the Liberal Party to found the Freedom Party. He did this partly as a response to Turkey's bid to join the European Union, and also in reaction to the rise of political Islam in the Netherlands.

No one has ever accused Mr. Wilders of being diplomatic. He's famously compared the Quran to "Mein Kampf" and described it as a "fascist book," he's called Muhammad "the devil," and he's proposed policies--such as banning the construction of mosques and taxing women who wear the burqa--to halt further Islamification.

At first, Mr. Wilders was dismissed as a far right-wing extremist. But since splitting from the Liberal Party six years ago, his star has only risen. In the national elections held in November 2006, his party won nine seats in parliament. When the Dutch government fell again this year, June elections saw his party take 24 seats in the 150-seat body.

This has spooked Dutch parliamentarians, particularly those wedded to multiculturalism. That's why, in the fall of 2009, they modified Article 137C and 137D of the Penal Code to make it possible for far-left organizations to take Mr. Wilders to court on grounds of "inciting hatred" against Muslims.

How is it possible that a mature European liberal democracy is prosecuting an elected member of parliament for his political opinions on the most pressing issue of the day--namely, Islamic fundamentalism?

Article 137C of the penal code now states that anyone "who publicly, verbally or in writing or image, deliberately expresses himself in anyway insulting of a group of people because of their race, their religion or belief . . . will be punished with a prison sentence of at the most one year or a fine of third category." It continues: "If the offense is committed by a person who makes it his profession or habit, or by two or more people in association, a prison sentence of at the most two years or a fine of fourth category will be imposed."

And so since Oct. 4, Mr. Wilders has filed into court to defend himself in this blasphemy trial. If he loses--and the chances are high, given that the presiding judges haven't been subtle about their bias against him--he will face fines or time in jail. (When Mr. Wilders said he would not speak at the trial, Judge Jan Moors accused him of being "good at making statements, but then avoiding the discussion" they provoke.)

How is it possible that a mature European liberal democracy is prosecuting an elected member of parliament for his political opinions on the most pressing issue of the day--namely, Islamic fundamentalism? There are three main reasons.

First, there is the matter of traditional politicians' discomfort with Mr. Wilders. Historically, the Netherlands has insisted on the idea of "consensus." Though on paper this means compromise, in practice it has meant conformity of thought and a refusal to rock the boat on controversial issues.

No issue has tested this comfortable consensus more than the ascent of Islam, first presented by immigrants from Morocco and Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s, and then by asylum-seekers and refugees from various Muslim countries beginning in the 1990s. Most elites responded by preaching "tolerance." Give Muslim immigrants benefits and wait until they voluntarily integrate, their argument goes. Even if that process would take generations--even when it became apparent that some Muslims practiced female genital mutilation and honor killings, and imams openly urged their congregations to reject Dutch culture and law--citizens were not to criticize Islam.

A growing segment of the population--including Mr. Wilders and me, when I was a member of parliament from 2003 to 2006--doubted this facile and dangerous idea of "tolerance." This upset politicians, professors, journalists and other opinion-makers who tried to make us untouchables.

There were exceptions: Brave people in media, business and even in the military supported me politically, often behind the scenes. Still, I eventually left the country due to a combination of frustration with the campaign of ostracism and the extreme threats I faced from Islamists who wanted to kill me. Mr. Wilders, however, endured.

The second reason Mr. Wilders is on trial is the electoral power of Muslims in the Netherlands' four major cities. During local elections in March 2006, Muslim immigrants for the first time acted as an unofficial power bloc that could make or break a major Dutch party.

The supposed victims of Dutch discrimination were now a force to reckon with. Thus, major parties including Labor and the Christian Democrats--dominant since World War II--now support policies like increased immigration from Muslim countries and welfare benefits for Muslim voters. And they turn a blind eye to the implementation of informal Shariah law, particularly concerning the treatment of women.

Third, there are the efforts of countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference to silence the European debate about Islam. One strategy used by the 57 OIC countries is to treat Muslim immigrants to Europe as satellite communities by establishing Muslim cultural organizations, mosques and Islamic centers, and by insisting on dual citizenship. Their other strategy is to pressure international organizations and the European Union to adopt resolutions to punish anyone who engages in "hate speech" against religion. The bill used to prosecute Mr. Wilders is the national version of what OIC diplomats peddle at the U.N. and EU.

The implications of this trial are enormous. In the short term, it could bring the simmering tensions between Holland's approximately one million Muslims and the 1.4 million voters who elected Mr. Wilders to a boil. The Netherlands has seen its share of Islamist violence before and could well see violent confrontations again.

On a more fundamental level, this trial--even if Mr. Wilders wins--could silence the brave critics of radical Islam. The West is in a war of ideas against political Islam. If free speech is not protected in Europe, we're already losing.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: indigo_jones/Flickr/Creative Commons

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