Totally tolerant, up to a point — Ian Buruma

(NYT) JAN 31 — 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 Quran 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 Muslims is for the judges to decide. But for a man who calls for a ban on the Quran 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 "criticising 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 Quran 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.

One of the misconceptions that muddle the West's debate over Islam and free speech is the idea that people should be totally free to insult. Free speech is never that absolute. Even — or perhaps especially — in America, where citizens are protected by the First Amendment, there are certain words and opinions that no civilised person would utter, and others that open the speaker to civil charges.

This does not mean that religious beliefs should be above criticism. And sometimes criticism will be taken as an insult where none is intended. In that case the critic should get the benefit of the doubt. Likening the Quran to "Mein Kampf" would not seem to fall into that category.

If Wilders were to confine his remarks to those Muslims who do harm freedom of speech by using violence against critics and apostates, he would have a valid point. This is indeed a serious problem, not just in the West, but especially in countries where Muslims are in the majority. Wilders, however, refuses to make such fine distinctions. He believes that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. His aim is to stop "the Islamic invasion of Holland."

There are others who share this fear and speak of "Islamicisation," as though not just Holland but all Europe were in danger of being engulfed by fascism once again. Since Muslims still constitute a relatively small minority, and most are not extremists, this seems an exaggerated fear, even though the danger of Islamist violence must be taken seriously.

However, a closer look at the rhetoric of Wilders and his defenders shows that Muslims are not the only enemies in their sights. Equally dangerous are the people whom Wilders and others refer to obsessively as "the cultural elite."

What they mean are liberals who are so concerned about Western racism that they find it hard to tolerate any criticism of non-Western people or non-Western faiths. There are such people, to be sure, but even among my fellow Dutch citizens political correctitude of this kind is becoming increasingly rare.

In the past, it is true, legitimate debates about cultural and religious tensions arising from the poor integration of ethnic minorities were often stifled by an excess of liberal zeal. Doubts about the official drive towards pan-European unity and over liberal policies over guest workers and refugees were too often dismissed as ultra-nationalism or worse.

In a bewildering world of global economics, multinational institutions and mass migration, many people are anxious about losing their sense of place; they feel abandoned by their own elites. Right-wing populists like Geert Wilders are tapping into these fears.

Since raw nativism is out of fashion in the Netherlands, Wilders does not speak of race, but of freedom. His method is to expose the intolerance of Muslims by provoking them. If they react to his insults, he can claim that they are a threat to our native liberties. And if anyone should point out that deliberately giving offence to Muslims is neither the best way to lower social tensions nor to protect our freedoms, Wilders will denounce him as a typical cultural elitist collaborating with "Islamo-fascism."

The lawsuit against Wilders has been hailed in the Netherlands as a good thing for democracy. I am not so sure. It makes him look more important than he should be. In fact, the response of Dutch Muslims to his film last year was exemplary: most said nothing at all. And when a small Dutch Muslim TV station offered to broadcast the film, after all other stations had refused, the grand champion of free speech resolutely turned the offer down. — NYT

Ian Buruma is the author of "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance."