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In defence of the right to offend

Reader comment on item: Will Geert Wilders Show His Film on the Koran[, Fitna]?

Submitted by Tom (Canada), Jan 29, 2008 at 02:33

The Netherlands has spent the past several weeks in a political crisis out of a novel by Borges. People are worried that a politician might say something he has already said. And they are divided over how to interpret a film that may not exist. Last August, the anti-immigration legislator, Geert Wilders, wrote in the daily De Volkskrant: "I've had enough of Islam in the Netherlands - not one more Muslim immigrant. I've had enough of Allah and Mohammed in the Netherlands - not one more mosque." Mr Wilders, whose Freedom party controls 9 of the 150 seats in the Dutch lower house, also urged banning the Koran, which he calls "the Islamic Mein Kampf ".

But his announcement in late November that he would make a short film to that effect sent the government into a panic. The cabinet met in secret. It ordered foreign embassies to draw up evacuation plans in case of mob violence. It put the mayors of Dutch cities on alert. It arranged meetings with imams and other Muslim representatives, distancing itself from Mr Wilders' positions. The interior, justice and foreign ministers summoned Mr Wilders to meetings, and the country's terrorism co-ordinator warned him that he might have to leave the country for his own security. The government reportedly investigated whether it would be possible to block or delay Mr Wilders's broadcast.

Not that there is anything illogical about taking precautions against radical Islam. When the director, Theo van Gogh, made a 10-minute film critical of Islam in 2004, he was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a Dutch-born Muslim. The printing of cartoons showing the prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked deadly riots around the world. Each time a gauntlet is thrown down, someone will credibly promise violence in the name of Islam. Mr Wilders' film idea was no exception. At the European parliament in Strasbourg last week, Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, Grand Mufti of Syria, warned that Mr Wilders would be responsible for any "violence and bloodshed" that resulted from his film - and that the Dutch people would, in turn, be responsible for reining him in. Noor Farida Ariffin, the departing Malaysian ambassador, told De Volkskrant: "Compared to what I'm expecting, the riots over the Danish cartoons will look like a picnic."

The climate has grown still more raw in the Netherlands lately. Ehsan Jami, the controversial leader of a new "Ex-Muslims Committee", founded in protest against the Koranic prescription of death for apostasy, has allied himself with Mr Wilders. The municipal museum in the Hague cancelled an exhibition by the Iranian Dutch photographer, Sooreh Hera, who had planned to show two homosexuals wearing masks of Mohammed and his revered son-in-law, Ali. Mr Wilders wrote a triumphant op-ed in de Volkskrant this week asking people to imagine what would happen if he had made a film describing the Bible as "fascistic": "Would Dutch embassies in countries where a lot of Christians live, like Germany and Belgium, have notified Dutch residents and dusted off their evacuation plans?"

Was Mr Wilders asserting a right to free speech? Or was he dressing up a gratuitous religious insult in constitutional language? He was doing both, of course. In their eagerness to keep Mr Wilders from airing his argument, the Dutch authorities helped make it for him. They were unable to admit that widespread worries about violence stem from a problem (extremism in the Muslim world) and not just from an approach to a problem (Mr Wilders's brusqueness). At a speech in Madrid, Maxime Verhagen, the foreign minister, said: "It is difficult to anticipate the content of the film, but freedom of expression doesn't mean the right to offend." It doesn't? Well, if it doesn't, then freedom of expression is not much of a right.

But that does not end the discussion. The intuition of Mr Verhagen and his colleagues - that there is a connection between rights and consensus mores that Mr Wilders has failed to respect - is correct. Constitutional law is supposed to draw borders between what is right and what is wrong in normal human behaviour. Staged provocations intended to shift such boundaries are sometimes acts of bad faith. Once people start playing with the law, rather than living under it, test cases proliferate. No right is unimaginable and no tradition too venerable to be revisited. Such cases are artificial, but the law they make is real.

Mr Wilders is something of a bogeyman in polite Dutch society now. He should not be. His perfectly legal effort resembles the kind of mischievous testing of boundaries that civil libertarians have engaged in whenever they have sought to hasten social change in the face of an indifferent or hostile electorate. In seeking to reopen such questions as, first, whether Islam is a religion, and, second, whether ancient scripture is sheltered from our laws regulating hate speech, Mr Wilders is the comrade-in-arms of those western legal activists who have agitated successfully for gay marriage, euthanasia and bans on religious display.

We have more religious pluralism than the western liberal system was designed to cope with. This does not necessarily mean that liberalism cannot handle pluralism, but certainly we are in the midst of an experiment. Mr Wilders aims to show that the experiment has failed and that one of the ingredients in our system of freedom of religion - either the liberalism or the pluralism - is going to have to go. The outcome would not have surprised Leo Strauss, the political philosopher who warned in 1953 that, for all its roots in the right to the pursuit of happiness, liberal relativism can also be "a seminary of intolerance".

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

In defence of the right to offend
By Christopher Caldwell

Published: January 26 2008 02:00 | Last updated: January 26 2008 02:00


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