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Prosecution of Dutch MP for Criticizing Islam Stirs Free Speech Debate in Europe

January 22, 2009 05:31 PM
by Christopher Coats
Reversing an earlier decision, a Dutch appeals court ruled that MP Geert Wilders could be prosecuted for comments and a film he made equating Islam with Nazism and violence.

Court Rules in Favor of Prosecution for Wilders

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Early last year, Wilders produced a 17-minute film that pairs extracts from the Quran with images of terrorist attacks, including those from the World Trade Center and Madrid attacks. Earlier, Wilders had attracted controversy by calling the Koran a “fascist book” and demanding it be banned.

“In a democratic system, hate speech is considered so serious that it is in the general interest to … draw a clear line,” the court said, according to the BBC.

Citing his role as a politician, the court stated that Wilders had gone beyond the leeway offered to public officials, stating, “The Amsterdam appeals court has ordered the prosecution of member of parliament Geert Wilders for inciting hatred and discrimination, based on comments by him in various media on Muslims and their beliefs.”

The decision has inflamed a long-running debate in Holland about free speech and the criticism of religion, namely Islam, with critics from across the political spectrum questioning the bounds of the country’s defamation laws.

However, the harsh nature of Wilders’ comments and his association with the far-right Freedom Party in Holland have grouped him with an increasing number of European politicians who have used fear and resentment of Muslim immigrants to garner influence.

Although the charges against Wilder are the first to emerge from a European court, it is not the first time he has faced prosecution for his comments.

In September, a Jordanian court in Amman issued charges of blasphemy and defamation against Wilders and 11 Danish editors for the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

Wilders’ alleged offenses related to the same film now in question, though Dutch authorities said at the time his comments were protected under the country’s freedom of speech laws.

Context: A standoff between faith and government

The Wilders case reflects an increasingly tense standoff between immigrant groups and governments regarding the role of Islam in European society.

According to The Economist, Muslims make up only 4 percent of the total EU population, but their concentration in urban areas has created sizable voting blocks, including in Amsterdam where Muslims make up 24 percent of the city.

This growth of the Muslim population and influence in European cities has resulted in examples of tension across the continent, bringing increasingly anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric to the surface, emerging from private groups and public officials.

In addition to protests against the religious slaughtering of animals in the home in Brussels to the construction of new mosques in London and Antwerp, critics of Islam have become increasingly vocal, including members of the Berlusconi government in Italy and Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn.

Outside of the government, anti-Muslim sentiment has seen a spike across Europe, with majorities in a number of countries now harboring negative views of Islam.

The debate in Holland in recent years has been especially vocal and occasionally violent as politicians, filmmakers and social critics continue to test the boundaries of religious criticism.

However, the decision to prosecute Wilders marks the first time a court has sanctioned punishment for critical comments about Islam.

Related: Oriana Fallaci

Although Wilders’ charges are unique, it is not the first time a person has faced a European court on charges of defaming Islam. In 2004, shortly before her death, controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was brought up on charges of defamation for her book, “The Strength of Reason,” which offered sharp criticism of Islam, suggesting a Muslim invasion of Europe.

Fallaci passed away due to cancer before the case could be resolved.

Opinion & Analysis: Free speech

Calling the court’s decision an outrage, BeliefNet’s Rod Dreher defended Wilders’ right to free speech, if not necessarily his message about Islam. “You don’t have to approve of Geert Wilders and his crusade to grasp that if they jail him for hurting the religious feelings of Muslims, the implications for free speech in Holland are horrific,” Dreher wrote.
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