‘Free speech is never absolute’ – Ian Buruma on the Wilders prosecution

Ian Buruma“If it were not for his hatred of Islam, Geert Wilders would have remained a provincial Dutch parliamentarian of little note. He is now world-famous, mainly for wanting the Koran to be banned in his country, ‘like Mein Kampf is banned’, and for making a crude short film that depicted Islam as a terrorist faith – or, as he puts it, ‘that sick ideology of Allah and Muhammad’.

“Last year the Dutch government decided that such views, though coarse, were an acceptable contribution to political debate. Yet last week an Amsterdam court decided that Wilders should be prosecuted for ‘insulting’ and ‘spreading hatred’ against Muslims. Dutch criminal law can be invoked against anyone who ‘deliberately insults people on the grounds of their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation’.

“Whether Wilders has deliberately insulted Muslim people is for the judges to decide. But for a man who calls for a ban on the Koran to act as the champion of free speech is a bit rich.

“When the British Parliament refused to screen Wilders’s film at Westminster this week, he cited this as ‘yet more proof that Europe is losing its freedom’. His defenders, by no means all right-wingers, also claim to be standing up for freedom. A Dutch law professor said he found it ‘strange’ that a man should be prosecuted for ‘criticizing a book’.

“This seems a trifle obtuse. Comparing a book that billions hold sacred to Hitler’s murderous tract is more than an exercise in literary criticism; it suggests that those who believe in the Koran are like Nazis, and an all-out war against them would be justified. This kind of thinking, presumably, is what the Dutch law court is seeking to check.”

New York Times, 29 January 2009