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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wilders on Trial for Political Debate in Europe

Geert Wilders, head of the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, went on trial on October 4, 2010, in the Netherlands on charges of inciting hatred, less than a week after entering parliament as a linchpin in the coalition government. The far right political leader faced five charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims and people of non-Western immigrant origin, particularly Moroccans. “He divides, he creates hate, he creates conflicts between people,” said Mohammed Rabbae of the National Council for Moroccans. Wilders told the court he was being persecuted for “stating my opinion in the context of public debate,” adding: “I can assure you, I will continue proclaiming it.” In an opinion piece in a Dutch daily, he compared Islam to fascism and the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf.” Wilders also made the film “Fitna” in 2008 which portrayed the Koran as inciting violence and mixed images of terrorist attacks with quotations from the Islamic holy book.

I am staying out of the debate on Islam. Hence, I am not expressing an opinion on whether I agree or disagree with Wilders’ statements on Islam. I raise the matter of this case for its implications for free speech as it is practiced in political debate. The extreme-antisemitism of the Nazis resulted in some rather severe curbs on free speech in the state of Germany that would shock people in any of the American states.  While the EU is relatively restrictive on free speech, however, even in the US a person can not shout “fire!” in a crowded theater unless there really is a fire. The Wilders case is not being prosecuted as a “fire” case.  Rather, it is being portrayed as akin to hate crimes in the US, only in this case it involves speech in a political debate.  The Europeans may be conflating a hate crime with an opinion in political debate.  Had Wilders urged people to kiss Muslims, his case would be much closer to a hate crime.  If a position in a political debate is itself to be treated as a hate crime, then politics itself is being criminalized.  This would be like saying that republican leaders who are against gay marriage and say it is sinful and akin to having sex with animals are somehow guilty of a hate crime. To say that something is odious does not in itself cross the line into urging people to kill those who believe in it or practice it. Were “dividing people” in a political speech or an opinion piece a crime, the republican party would find itself continually before a judge as one interest group after another feels marginalized by republican positions on particular issues. Political positions may well offend; that is the nature of politics. It doesn’t make it a crime. A clearer line between politics and crime needs to be drawn in Europe. Otherwise, prosecution will be increasingly used to cut out positions in the political discourse that some do not like. Politics is about conflict—hopefully resolving it. Part of the process may be identifying the conflict, and this may be perceived as dividing people when in fact there is already such a division. Where one side of a division is criminalized, the division itself cannot be known by society, and thus any resolution would be partial.  Ideally, a division should be clearly and fully enunciated by each side, and then others not invested in either side will be sufficiently informed to be able to suggest viable and realistic solutions to the conflict. To ignore one of the positions would be to risk a solution that is merely partial and thus ultimately unsustainable.

Source:  http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,6072375,00.html%C2%A0