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Freedom Includes the Freedom to Offend

Geert Wilders is to be tried for making the film Fitna.

A European politician is to be tried for making a film.

I’m tempted to say “Has the world gone mad?” but I don’t want to sound like a Daily Telegraph reader. The most telling line in the judgement handed down by the Dutch court is, “[Wilders’ statements are] so insulting for Muslims that it is in the public interest to prosecute”. This seems to suggest that the reason for the prosecution is fear of a Muslim backlash. Exactly the sort of violent tendencies Fitna criticises.

Don’t get me wrong I understand that Fitna offers a simplistic explanation of a complex problem. Muslim violence isn’t just religious in origin, there are political, economic and historical reasons too. I do think that Islam makes these problems worse though. It makes finding solutions harder and shapes the nature of the violence. The fairy tales of divine sanction and eternal reward make actions like suicide bombing possible.

I don’t want to rhapsodise Western values or to pretend our culture doesn’t have problems but it’s time for the West, in particular Europe, to stop compromising. We need to stand up for what we believe in. With the rapid advance of technology the next 50 years could be a Golden age for mankind but only progressive secular values can make this happen. Isn’t it time to leave the darkness of religion behind?

Edit – I’m not sure how much good these things really do but there is an online petition here.


17 Responses

  1. ever hear the saying eaten bread is soon forgotten have you forgotten the terrified young men fighting on the beaches of normandy or the the hell in the pacific islands they did not fight and die so future politicians inflicted with the disease of liberalism could hand those hard earned freedoms to a theology that is corrupt and by its own teachings seeks to dominate the world and bring us all back to the stoning age

  2. I understand the whole “I hate what you have to say but I wil fight to death for your right to say it” view on things. But take a step back. Isn’t this just the kind of romantic absolutism towards a moral or logal principle that our brain seems to be created to soak up and fall in love with in the same way that we do religion? It’s a very compelling line of thought and it is admittedly beautiful. But that shouldn’t have to mean that, just on this issue, it suddenly is okay to treat the world as something black and white.

    Being open to abuse is what you get with every bit of legislation that transcends the black and white. It’s what happens when you deal with issues that are about crossing a line that isn’t really a line. Even within the issue of free speech under American law there are such blurry lines that could be open to abuse. Take libel, or more interestingly copyright and trademark law. These can be abused, and sometimes they are, in ways to stifle dissent just as well as hate speech laws could. This is where you need to put trust in your legal system to build up a body of precedents that put a proper weight on such issues and safeguard your personal liberties. And what do you know, it’s still permitted to be critical of Shell in public.

    Hate speech laws are really not different from those other limits. Yes, they must go at lengths to try and draw a line in a fluid. That is where the courts come into play, and if you look at the actual history of court cases having to do with hate speech laws, at least in the Netherlands, you will find a steady pattern of courts deciding in favor of people’s right to free speech. They will not convict someone under these laws under any regime that takes into account the offensiveness of their speech.

    Something that can also easily be forgotten is the extra weight put on this situation by the fact that Geert Wilders is a member of parliament and the leader of a prominent right wing party. His words carry the weight of 579,490 votes in the last election, out of a population of 16 million. When he makes a movie, he’s not just making a movie, he is also explaining policy. Even so, a case against Fitna didn’t get past the courts.

    As to your point about this all being completely impractical, in that you cannot actually control the entire discussion, a part of me wants to agree with you. On the other hand, though, you should not underestimate the effect of the mass media on the way those private discussions you can’t control let themselves drift. Just look at what talking heads on Fox News spewing hateful bile on the population has done for that 30% of America that, without a doubt, considers atheists and other groups that don’t fit their socio-religious mold as sub-human.

  3. Why is it bad to add ‘demonizing population groups based on common traits’ or some such to that list of exceptions?

    It is bad because it is open to abuse.

    Hate-speech laws offer the potential to be used to stifle dissent and criticism and to exercise the ‘tyranny of the majority’, upon minority groups with non-conformist views. As an atheist, i would be concerned that justified, warranted criticism could be seen as hate-speech just because what i write or say is found to be offensive. The religious are pathologically easy to offend by atheists as we represent a dangerous concept to them.

    Rather than criminalizing the free expression of ideas, we should embrace it. If an article or a film, or a speech offends – surely it is better to open a debate, and discussion. On principle i believe in free-speech, and it is exactly the speech that offends that must be protected. I invite you to look at the ACLU in the US they understand the principle well and have defended some true scumbags based on this principle.

    I take your point that speech promoting bigoted views is a danger in that it can create a culture of acceptance of such views, i just don’t feel that legislation will ever trump discourse and debate.

    The ‘yelling Fire in a crowded theater’ is of course an exception, and an obvious one, and libel is a legal issue for individuals. Protecting a group because they are sensitive to offense is no basis for legislation.

  4. stilldoubting: I’ve been much an admirer of the principled way most Americans look at their first amendment and I’m not a big fan of hate speech laws per se (all be it on practical grounds, not in principal). But that European countries have hate speech laws is not something new. They’ve been pointed at hate-spewing imams as many times as at people like Geert Wilders.

    To give hate speech laws a bit of leeway, let me point out though that the issue at hand here is never as simple as offense. That would be a path of so many slippery slopes that such a law would be laughed out of courts. Hate speech laws are about demonization of population groups that create rifts in society.

    The reason why you see them in so many European countries is mostly not about misplaced soft-hearted liberalism, but backlash from the experiences with the holocaust in the second world war. In the decades before the rise of fascism, you could find many well-written books having reasoned discouse about the Problem of the Jews. That Hitler shit didn’t just fall out of a blue sky. It was just the grand finale of a public discourse that had been poisoned long before by allowing itself to drift off in those directions.

    It stands to reason that under any freedom-of-speech regime, there are always practical limits to what is actually permissible. There’s the libel exception. The yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater exception. Why is it bad to add ‘demonizing population groups based on common traits’ or some such to that list of exceptions?

  5. As ever, others express it better than I can.


  6. Pim: Thanks for clearing things up a bit for me. I just want to be clear that i do not share Geert Wilders views, in my opinion he is far too black and white, and his arguments are simplistic and bigoted. We part company in many areas. The thrust of my argument is the protection of free speech, surely the corner-stone of any liberal democracy.

    I fully accept that people will find the comparison between the Koran and Mein Kampf offensive. The point is that i don’t care, too bad, i see it as irrelevant distraction to my argument. I would feel the same if it was the Koran was replaced with the Bible, or the Origin of Species. Some people make a virtue out of being offended and in our rush to be tolerant, we risk our hard-won freedoms.

  7. Foo Bin said: “This blog is just another sensationalist jump-on-the-bandwagon rag.”

    I think you’ll find Foo Bin, that this blog is NOTHING of the sort. This blog is a collection of authors who represent a small section of an organisation, who use this blog to bring issues to light that we think may be relevant to the members of the organisation and that may also have an interest to the passing public.

    I also think you’ll find that not all of us agree completely with each other, and as such, it is wrong for you to attempt to label the blog as a whole as being anything specific aside from the aforementioned description I gave.

    Perhaps Jason’s post was jumping on a band-wagon, which I don’t think it was, but then you should address him directly.

    Anyway, semantics and rude comments aside, I think that Geert Wilders is right in his opinions only up to a certain point. It is a much more complicated issue than simply “Muslims all believe X and X is entirely detrimental to our country”. Even if this were true and it was the full extent of the issue, the way he is attempting to deal with this issue is a bit arseways.

    But I would agree with his fervor against those of the Muslim population who DO believe X as it is and are truly a threat to the Dutch nation.

  8. So what if the Dutch decide to prosecute? Why are we applying our laws in opining on the situation? We allow skinheads to protest in public places but the germans outlaw that type of activity. Some thing simply are in excess – so far so that some type of action ought to be taken so that things do not escalate to the point of violence. It is a bit of a backwards thing, in my own opinion, but the Dutch obviously feel otherwise. It’s the same with their drug laws. I may not personally agree, but it’s their land and their democratically passed laws ought to trump our American opinions.

  9. Jason, it’s a pretty complicated situation. Because, with all that I mentioned, there actually really are issues related to radical islam and immigrant youths. The Theo van Gogh murder really messed things up. It’s just really unfortunate that a lot of that really played into the prejudices people had against muslim immigrants in the first place, much the same way that september 11 did for the western world in general.

    The other side is that most immigrants, even if they profess to be muslim, do not subscribe to Wahabi’ism or other fringe subcultures of Islam. Most of them are muslim more out of habit and tradition than out of some deep political conviction. They’ll break more commandments than Allah managed to make up for them (much the same way most Christians lead their life), but they’ll stick to Islam’s traditional aspects like Ramadan, much like a lot of Christians only come out of the woodwork at Christmas time.

  10. Hi Pim, you make some very good points and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to explain some of the background to this issue.

    I’m always wary of people who try to say “All Muslims believe X” because as you rightly point out people are individuals and many only pay lip service to religion because it’s part of their history and culture. At least that’s the case in Ireland.

    You’re also right that is too easy to blame a nebulous “Other”. Atheists also face this problem.

    I did speak with a Dutch friend before I posted this piece and I was also thinking of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Both those sources led me to think that the Netherlands does face a very real issue with integration of it’s Muslim citizens.

    I won’t pretend that I know the solution.

  11. Jason, a petition is completely useless here. It is not a political decision. You cannot sway judges not to consider a case based on petitions. That’s now how the legal system works.

    If there’s a verdict and it’s one we don’t like, then it will be a good time to start petitioning the Dutch government to work on fixing broken legislation.

  12. stilldoubting: There is no ruling against Wilders. There is no actual court case against Wilders yet. Until there actually is a ruling, ‘The Dutch’ have not gone anywhere. What happened is that the justice department has been sued to start a case against Wilders and this time it has been ruled that, indeed, they should start a case. Specific complaints have not yet been filed (it has just only been alluded on what basis complaints should be made) and a date hasn’t been set yet. Until this court case is actually completed and something substantial has been ruled on the issues, this is all just hot air.

    In any case, this is all taking place within the justice department and has all to do with deciding on what existing hate speech laws actually have to say about this. It is not a political decision to, all of a sudden, decide that it should be illegal to offend muslims. So even if, after this case is finished, the conclusion is that the worst fears you are projecting on it right come out true and writing or saying something that might insult islam is ruled illegal, it’s still not a matter of ‘The Dutch’ going too far. The actual question of whether or not they go too far depends on the political reaction to a finding of that kind. If all political parties respond to that ruling with an air of “oh that’s all right” instead of working on legislation to fix it, _then_ I would agree with you that things had gone too far.

    I agree that something being an insult, as such, should not be anywhere near hate speech laws. But the issue of comparing the Quran to Mein Kampf has a number of connotations that could be seen as transcending just the matter of offensiveness. The implication of the comparison is that Mr. Wilders has a belief that the Quran is a manual for inhuman monsters who are out to exterminate their enemies. What that in turn implies is that the fairly large group of immigrants that Mr. Wilders has been railing against since the first day of his political career, are inhuman monsters who are out to exterminate their enemies, that being the ‘native’ population. This is not about an off-hand comparison between the relative evils of the Quran and other works of violence. It’s about his using this comparison as a vessel for hatred against meditteranean immigrants.

    Quranic readings about the Caliphate, for example, are already being used in much the same way as the classic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The storyline is that muslim immigrants are out to conquer the lands by outbreeding the natives and subverting the political system. A whole group of immigrants are represented as a large sinister collective, instead of large numbers of individuals with individual dreams and ambitions, most of which have very little to do with islamic teachings in the first place.

    Obviously, if you keep out arguments against the concept of hate speech laws as such, the matter of how these apply to this kind of ‘dog whistle’ speech is something that is worth determining. I’m getting just really fed up with how this is being presented on humanist and atheist blogs as a ruling that somehow implies that the country is steering towards the notion that it should be illegal to criticize religion. It’s not. We’re just struggling with a political framework where islam is being used as a proxy for racism.

  13. Well it depends on how you define ‘hate speech’. There are many definitions, and every country has it’s own, as you so triumphantly ‘reveal’ to us poor sensationalists. I believe the Dutch have gone too far with this ruling.

    The only definition of hate speech that I feel has any integrity (based on liberal, secular values), would be built on speech that incites violence against another group of people, based on some bigoted opinion. This is hardly the case here, though it may work in reverse, if the members of ‘the religion of peace’, get excited again.

    It is ridiculous to assert that this prosecution is not based on a perceived insult to Islam. Wilders made a comparison between the Koran and another book by Hitler, so it’s offensive to MUSLIMS, And i think the point of the original post is that this remains a free speech issue.

  14. Every democracy has laws against hate speech.

    This particular development has absolutely nothing to do with this loser’s “film”, but rather with a letter he wrote to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. He wrote that the Qur’an is comparable to Mein Kampf and that it should be a banned book in the Netherlands, i.e. its possession be a criminal offence. THAT is the issue here (and if you had read the actual judge’s ruling, you’d know that).

    In fact the ruling (which I linked here just above) makes it clear this has nothing to do with Muslims being “offended”:

    “As regards insulting statements the Court of Appeal prefers the political, public and other legal counter forces rather than the criminal law, as a result of which an active participation to the public debate, by moslims as well, is promoted.”

    “However, the Court of Appeal makes an exception as regards insulting statements in which a connection with Nazism is made (for instance by comparing the Koran with “Mein Kampf”).”

    The comparison to Nazism is where he crossed the line.

    This blog is just another sensationalist jump-on-the-bandwagon rag.

  15. Wilders sits firmly on the other side of the political fence to myself. I disagree with on many issues, but we should all feel unease at these developments, laws like these place us at the brink of a chasm.

    Free speech is a basic human right in any liberal society and nobody has the right not to be offended. The religious feel no compunction about expressing their often bigoted views, yet cry foul whenever they come under criticism. Regardless of what you think of a given opinion, if we care about free speech, we should be horrified about where this is going and we should defend the right of people to have bigoted views.

    George Orwell wrote that ‘Liberty, if it means anything is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear’

  16. Wilders is not actually being prosecuted for the film. They tried that and they lost. This is not about being critical of islam, not even about being offensive. It’s about creating a climate where valid criticism of islam is being co-opted to bring the message that a country’s whole immigrant population is violent and dangerous because they subscribe to a religion that admittedly has some batshit insane fundaments. Islam is not unique in being a religion based on a book that is full of violence and intolerance, but muslims are alone in being put in a position where their religion is posed as being ‘incompatible with western values’ and its believers exclusively as dangerous subversives.

  17. This situation kinda puts me in mind of the protests in London last year with lads carrying placards reading “Behead those who say Islam is a violent religeon”

    Mohammed obviously did irony as well as he did underage.

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