Speech laws are leaving European prosecutors tongue-tied.
In the Netherlands one may badmouth or lampoon a group’s god or prophets, just not the group itself. Many European Muslims, however, would prefer to have it the other way around, and see this as a prime example of how secular Europeans place man before God. Europeans, conversely, see the Muslim reaction as an example of how Muslims have failed to adapt to Western ways of thinking.
This distinction is at the crux of a case presently before a Dutch court. The case involves a cartoon published on a pro-Arab European website depicting two Jewish men poking around in a pile of bones next to a sign that reads Auschwitz. One man says, “I don’t think they’re Jewish. The other responds, “We have to get to six million somehow.”
Dutch prosecutors say the cartoon insults Jews and therefore conflicts with hate speech laws which ban discrimination against groups. Such laws were put into place across Europe as a response to the Holocaust, but they have never been popular with free-speech proponents, who point out that such laws are violations of natural rights and would not have prevented the Holocaust anyway.
In August, Dutch prosecutors gave the Arab European League two weeks to remove the cartoon. Then came news that prosecutors were dropping charges against Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders. Wilders had been indicted for a hate crime after he made a film that showed controversial images of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Dutch prosecutors, however, found that Wilders had not attacked Muslims as a group, but only their spiritual founder, therefore he could not be prosecuted.
The AEL, meanwhile, says it does not dispute the Holocaust happened and claims it published the cartoon to illustrate the double standard that prevails in Europe. Apparently, AEL felt there was a double standard even before charges against Wilders were dropped.
There appears to be a childish tit-for-tat going on. A spokesman for the Center for Documentation on Israel, which initially filed the cartoon complaint against AEL, said Jews had nothing to do with the Muhammad cartoons shown in the Wilders film, therefore it did not make sense for the league to retaliate against Jews. “Imagine if Dutch Jews insulted Muslims every time they heard an anti-Semitic remark. What kind of perverse world would we be living in?” a spokesman told the Jerusalem Post.
It should come as no surprise that AEL attacked Jews instead of Christians. (Wilders, it should be noted, is a Roman Catholic.) A brief scan of the AEL website finds a Boycott Israel/Free Palestine poster containing the image of a hand grenade covered with a fruit sticker that reads “Product of Israel.” (The French word grenade comes from the word for pomegranate.) One could argue that this image is far more dangerous than the Auschwitz cartoon, since it is ambiguous enough to avoid hate speech prosecution, while it could be understood to encourage terrorism.)
IF THE GOAL OF Europe’s many hate speech laws is to render offending people illegal, it is failing miserably. Dutch prosecutors must have known Muslims would regard hate speech involving an image of the prophet Mohammed as more contemptible than hate speech directed against Muslims. By dismissing the case against Wilders, prosecutors seemed to have gone out of their way to offend Muslims. But isn’t offending Muslims as a group against the law?
This is what happens when politicians start monkeying with free speech in order that no one be offended. Doubtless there will be calls to go even further. European lawmakers will have no choice but to ban hateful speech directed at any and all religions, and any and all gods, prophets and spiritual leaders. This will lead to calls for more bad laws, perhaps from Europe’s secular humanists, for equal protection from unwelcomed criticism, until European jails are crowded with speech offenders.
I find myself (unfortunately) on the side of AEL’s Abdoulmouthalib Bouzerda, who told the Jerusalem Post that anyone should be allowed to publish insulting material in the interest of public debate. Of course, many European politicians do not think public debate is healthy. You would think that a few Europeans would remember what it was like under communism, fascism, and Nazism when public debate was squelched. Instead, lawmakers seem bent on following the example of totalitarian governments by banning more and more speech.
Some will argue that hate speech laws would have prevented the Holocaust, or will prevent a second holocaust. But that is being incredibly naïve. Imperial and Weimar Germany had incitement-to-hatred laws, including a law prohibiting libeling the Jewish religion (under Paragraph 166 of the Weimar Penal Code). Indeed, the speech laws in Europe in the 1920s were even more draconian than today’s laws. None of this mattered, because in the end a dictator makes his own laws. Ultimately speech laws only made matters worse.
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