Free speech in Europe is dying. On January 20 the Netherlands, once thought to be a tolerant, liberal country, opened criminal proceedings against Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party. He is accused of religious hate speech for his film Fitna, which pointed out the obvious, that Islam ain’t the most tolerant of religions, as well as statements made in support of proposals to limit Muslim immigration and ban the Quran just as the Netherlands bans Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The American media’s silence about the Geert Wilders trial is puzzling – the trial is explosive, much more so than most of America’s perennial “trials of the century.” Wilders, leader of the Freedom party, is arguably the Netherlands’s most popular politician, but for years he has had to live in safe houses, including on military bases. He now faces the possibility of imprisonment on charges of “group insult” and “incitement to hatred,” as defined by articles 137 (c) and (d) of the Dutch penal code, for his public speeches and op-eds criticizing Islam.
Apart from its direct and immediate threat to free speech, the trial exposes the growth of political violence and repression in the Netherlands, long lauded as the most tolerant country in Europe, if not the world. Thirty years ago, I interviewed then-prime minister Dries van Agt simply by strolling into his unguarded parliamentary office and asking his secretary if he could spare me a couple of minutes. Now it is a country where politicians and artists are targeted by vigilantes and the state.
In 2002, popular Dutch politician and gay activist Pim Fortuyn was murdered by an environmentalist who took offense at Fortuyn’s criticism of Islam. In 2004, one of the country’s leading documentarians, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered, and almost beheaded, on the streets of Amsterdam in retaliation for a film he made about Islam (Submission). In 2006, a gathering of scholars and commentators critical of Islam and Islamism led the Dutch security service to invoke an alert level just short of “national emergency.” In 2008, the prospective release of Wilders’s film Fitna led to special sessions of the Dutch cabinet. The country’s best-known member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for many years had to live in hiding, and even briefly fled the country. This is the situation in the heart of liberal Europe.
The worst religious persecutors abroad are Islamic states–think Saudi Arabia, for instance. Persecuting Islamic states like Pakistan are leading the campaign against the “defamation” of religion through the United Nations. And even more ominously, as evidenced by the Wilders case, intolerant Islamic extremists are turning European governments into their de facto agents.
One does not have to agree with every proposal and statement made by Wilders to recognize the danger posed by his prosecution. Americans have to remain on alert to ensure that this sort of outrageous political correctness is not allowed to curb free speech in America, including the right to criticize Islam and Islamic extremists.