Jan 28th 2015
In a series following our print article on conflicting approaches to free speech after the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7th, our correspondents offer more in-depth analysis of the threats to freedom of expression around the world. Our third article looks at the Netherlands. (The first was on Thailand; the second on the Middle East.)
The Netherlands' very identity is rooted in liberal Enlightenment principles, yet for years, conflicts between laws mandating freedom of expression and laws mandating religious tolerance have had it tied up in knots. In a speech last year after local elections, Geert Wilders, a populist politician prompted a crowd of followers to shout that they wanted "fewer Moroccans", to which he replied: "Then we'll see to that." He faces prosecution for remarks prosecutors say demonised a population group rather than criticising a religion.
Mr Wilders uses such prosecutions to pose as a martyr for free expression, a proven political strategy in the Netherlands. It was pioneered by Pim Fortuyn, a sociology professor who rocketed to popularity in 2001 by attacking political correctness and multiculturalism, before being assassinated by an animal-rights activist. Mr Fortuyn, who was gay, condemned Islam as a "backward" and homophobic religion, insisting he was simply voicing the majority's silently held convictions. His bluntness empowered many Dutch to express formerly taboo, often offensive opinions. After Theo van Gogh, a film-maker and anti-Muslim provocateur, was murdered in 2004, advocating freedom of speech increasingly came to mean openly attacking Islam.
Among the policies of Mr Wilders's Party for Freedom (PVV) is to ban the Koran. He denies that this contradicts his claim to be a defender of free speech, comparing the Koran to Hitler's "Mein Kampf"—that is, the handbook of a totalitarian ideology. "Mein Kampf" is banned in the Netherlands, and in 2007 a minister's tentative proposal to allow its distribution was quickly shot down by parliamentarians (though an antiquarian prosecuted for selling several old editions of the book was acquitted in November). Other speech laws have been more aggressively enforced. In 2008, the cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot was arrested for incitement to hatred. His extraordinarily offensive drawings now adorn the PVV's parliamentary offices.
Neighbouring Germany also bans "Mein Kampf", and has laws barring incitement to group hatred. Yet it has seen nothing like the ongoing Dutch clash between free-speech rights and laws mandating tolerance. For many Dutch, blunt critiques of religion are part of a national heritage going back to Spinoza. So are efforts by government to keep diverse religious communities from insulting each other to the point of violence. For Mr Wilders, the tension between these two mandates has been politically fruitful, and he is likely to continue milking it for all it is worth.