Thursday, 23 June 2011

Geert Wilders fails to become a free speech martyr

So the protracted, farcical, often surreal trial of the Dutch politician and provocateur Geert Wilders for insulting Islam, has reached a surprisingly sane conclusion. He has been acquitted. This ought to come as no surprise, seeing that the Prosecution told the court that he had no case to answer. In Britain, that would have been the end of it. But the Netherlands is not Britain, and the panel of judges (no jury) would have been quite entitled to ignore the arguments of Defence and Prosecution alike and find him guilty as charged.

Many expected that they would. The case was brought, not by the prosecutorial authorities but despite their best efforts. It was brought at the direction of an Amsterdam appeal court that, in an astonishing and chilling ruling back in 2008, not only overturned the decision not to prosecute but virtually directed the lower court to find him guilty. The judgement declared that prosecuting Wilders was "obvious" and dismissed the contention of the public prosecutor that there was any distinction to be drawn between criticising Islam and inciting hatred against Muslims as a whole (a distinction that, mindful of the law, Wilders has always been careful to enunciate).

The Appeal Court asserted that Wilders' views (perhaps they meant his expression of them, but it just says "views") "constitute a criminal offence according to Dutch law... both because of their contents and the method of presentation." The views were an incitement and, moreover, "insulting as well since these statements substantially harm the religious esteem of the Islamic worshippers." And thus criminal. He could not assert his Convention right to freedom of expression because, as a politician, he had "special responsibility" - there were apparently "European standards" according to which "statements which create hate and grief made by politicians" were "not permitted." Moreover, by bringing up the Nazis (he famously said that if Mein Kampf were banned, the Koran should be also) Wilders had "exceeded fundamental boundaries".

During Wilders' trial last year it was revealed that one of the Appeal judges responsible for this ruling had tried to nobble one of the defence witnesses. Soon afterwards the defence managed the judges on the case dismissed for bias. It even looked as though the case might be over. But no: the whole expensive circus started up again this year. The defence asserted the principle of free speech, the prosecution offered no evidence, and Wilders himself made a histrionic speech attacking both Islam -"an ideology sprung from the desert that can produce only deserts" - and the European elites who were "acting as the protectors of an ideology that has been bent on destroying us since the fourteenth century."

It was a deliberately combative and provocative speech, one that seemed to invite a guilty verdict. Yet today we learn that he has been acquitted. The court has blinked, steped back, refused to give Geert Wilders the status of a free speech martyr that part of him must have craved. The lead judge described some of his remarks as "rude and denigrating", but decided that they did not amount to incitement. Regarding the film Fitna, the court ruled that "given the film in its whole and the context of societal debate, there is no question of inciting hate".

The Amsterdam Appeal court , by contrast, had ruled that Fitna's "method of presentation is characterized by biased, strongly generalizing phrasings with a radical meaning ongoing reiteration and an increasing intensity, as a result of which hate is created."

In other words, in choosing to acquit Geert Wilders the panel have refused to follow the clear directions of the Appeal Court that ordered the prosecution.

Cranmer thinks that the effect will be "seismic". It clearly lays down some sort of marker for the future. When the charges were first laid, there were plenty of people willing to argue in favour of curbing free speech to protect (as they saw it) social harmony. In February 2009 Chris Huhne , in a fine example of Liberal illiberalism (or illiberal Liberalism, if you prefer), wrote in support of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's ban on Wilders entering Britain that there was "a serious risk that Wilder's views could create substantial harm to ethnic minorities in this country, and it is this prevention of harm that justifies the restrictions to Wilder's freedom of speech."

But the ban was overturned by the High Court (not surprisingly, since it was plainly contrary to EU law on freedom of movement) and Wilders came, not once but twice, and no harm was done. Anjem Choudary and his chums showed up with their usual "Islam will Conquer" and "Free speech go to hell" placards (exercising their free speech as usual) and that was about that. It's surely over the top to ban someone from entering the country on the grounds that his presence would give Mr Choudary, a man who largely shares Wilders' view of Islam, an opportunity to shout a few slogans.

Geert Wilders is only the most prominent person in Europe to find themselves in trouble for being offensive about Islam. Earlier this year in Austria, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted for "denigration of the religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion", a strange sort of offence that is hard to square with any sort of free debate about any religion.

Wilders notoriously compared the Koran with Hitler's Mein Kampf on the grounds that both books incite violence. If the latter should be banned (as it is in most of Europe) he said, then so should the former - a more nuanced position than the one he is often accused of maintaining, that the Koran should be banned. Of course, there are differences. It is possible to draw a violent message from the Koran, but many (perhaps most) Muslims manage to take only a spiritual and moral message from it. Has anyone ever found Mein Kampf to be a work of peace and love? Has anyone ever been inspired by Hitler to lead a better life? Nevertheless, Wilders had a point.

Once you start banning books because they're offensive, or because bad people are likely to do bad things after reading them, you're already in a world of censorship. Censorship - of ideas as well as of information about footballers' private entanglements - usually backfires in today's world.