Searchlight - October 2008
Ever since right-wing populist Geert Wilders announced his controversial and hate-filled Fitna video clip project, his Islamphobia has gone into overdrive.
After the anti-Islamic Fitna video clip was posted on the Internet in March this year (see Searchlight May 2008), official complaints against him rapidly mounted and the Public Prosecution (OM) were pressed to investigate whether his remarks in the media and parliament were outside the law but months eventually went by before the public prosecutor finally produced a verdict.
On the issue of his use, in the Fitna video clip, of the infamous caricature of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban by the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, the public prosecutor decided it was "hurtful" but that as long as it did not describe Muslims per se as dangerous – which is seen as insulting and as an incitement to hatred, there was no problem.
Could groups of Muslims feel insulted by the cartoon? Again "no" because, according to the justice authorities, there should be "objective starting points that reveal that the picture of Mohammed symbolises a group of religious Muslims" and that, "in this case" it is Islam as a religion that is depicted. So, because it is seen as a matter of criticising religion, the cartoon is not punishable according to Dutch law.
Various departments researched to find out whether Wilders' video clip and his subsequent comments to newspapers were discriminatory for five months. The district attorney in Amsterdam looked into it and the Expert Centre on Discrimination (a legal institution), the College of Prosecutors, three external jurists and, eventually the justice minister Hirsch Ballin, all put Wilders under the microscope but, according to all of them, Wilders had operated within the margins of Dutch anti-discrimination law. For this, the context in which the remarks were made – the political debate in society – is vitally important.
In the political arena, other standards are used than would have been if Wilders had vilified individuals or had used another subject "but there are boundaries', the justice authorities statement hurried to emphasise, "to serve those who do feel insulted." The outcome of their investigation, however, only concerned Fitna and Wilders' statements in the media.
In a letter to the numerous persons and organisations who filed complaints against Wilders, the justice authorities wrote that Wilders had "apparently" wanted to ventilate his discomfort with the Islamic faith and the book on which it is based but added that, as a group, Muslims were not being discredited. Even though Wilders branded the ideas of Allah and Mohamed "sick", that seemingly is not an insult in the eyes of the law "because no negative connotations are connected to Muslim as such". Put short and simply, criticism of beliefs does not necessarily target individuals who believe.
Dutch jurisprudence on freedom of speech verdicts shows few restrictions in these cases, but there are some. Gratuitous insults, for example, are not allowed, even by politicians.
The European Treaty for Human Rights also has an open criterion for what it describes as a legal "pressing social need" to prosecute in a freedom of speech issue with the severity of a statement and the way in which "public order" is affected by it the main parameters.
In the Netherlands, the debate that has evolved about Islam is without precedent and has created the space for parliamentarians to say more than they could have dreamed of a decade ago.
However, why a politician like the late Hans Janmaat, leader of the racist Centrum Democrats, was prosecuted and convicted for less serious insults and collective discrimination back then than Wilder now, the justice authorities have miserably failed to answer.
The belief of the justice authorities that Muslims in the Netherlands are not in such weak position that they have to be defended by laws and that the political arena is there to counter Wilders lacks an understanding of current reality.
It is Wilders that dominates the debate, has a huge stage every week in the parliament, has access to the entire media while anyone who feels insulted by him can only write to a newspaper and vote, if they feel represented and defended by politicians at all, every four years. There is no equality in that.
The justice authorities have given far too much consideration to the possible public reaction to the prosecution of Wilders. In effect, they have more allowed themselves to be taken hostage by the angry mob of white Wilders fans than by the fictitious " Muslim take-over" that Wilders pathetically warns about.
Jeroen Bosch for Alert! and Antifa-Net