There is a particular paradox with my post this morning that I didn’t really go out of my way to point out. That paradox has to do with finding a case that we (as free speech advocates) can sell to the public as an argument for unrestricted free speech rights. Its self-contradictory nature comes from the fact that in a liberal society that respects the rule of law, there aren’t a lot of examples of unpopular speech that the public can really get behind. The most common form of unpopular speech is based in hatred and intolerance, and you can’t really rally too many people behind that message.
But perhaps, with a bit of work, we can convince people of the merit in this:
A Dutch court acquitted right-wing politician Geert Wilders of hate speech and discrimination Thursday, ruling that his anti-Islam statements, while offensive to many Muslims, fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate. Judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders’s claims that Islam is violent by nature, and his calls to halt Muslim immigration and ban the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, must be seen in a wider context of debate over immigration policy. The Amsterdam court said his public statement could not be directly linked to increased discrimination against Dutch Muslims.
I will do myself the favour of stating unequivocally that I don’t like Geert Wilders, and will explain briefly why that is.
I do not buy the argument that the forces of Islamism are plotting a gradual takeover of Western society. It’s a fear-driven conspiracy theory carefully stoked in the xenophobic parts that inhabit all of us. It is convenient to our story-telling brains to dichotomize world events into “forces of good” and “forces of evil”. Hell, even I’m guilty of it (kind of… I trust my readers are aware of the sarcastic irony behind my categorization).
The reality is more like a variety of several ideologies, each competing for finite political real estate. The Islamist ideology is indeed fighting for supremacy, but not at the expense of Christianity. Islamism isn’t trying to “take over” any more than communism is trying to “take over” – all ideologies are fighting for dominance. This is where Wilders is wrong – he contrasts Islamic domination with Christian domination, when neither of these ideologies is truly dominant. While modern-day Europe owes a great deal to traditions laid down under true Christian ideological domination, most of the freedoms we enjoy today were despite Christian dominance (or rather, in the face of it) rather than because of it.
That being said, the world would be a much better place under the current situation of formerly-Christian secularism rather than an Islamic theocracy. Islam is, as written, much more hostile to the idea of religious pluralism than Christianity – I am happy to grant that. But the fight is not between an Islamic state and a Christian one – it’s between an absolutist state and a pluralistic one. Christian theocracy frightens me just as much as Islamic theocracy. Insofar as Wilders opposes an absolutist state, I am 100% with him. Where he and I differ has to do with his inability to divorce the ideas of Islam and absolutism. The two concepts are overlapping, but only mildly more so than are Christianity and absolutism.
Now, that covers basically where my position differs from Wilders’. The purpose of this post is to point out that what he said was a critique of an ideology, not the people who hold it. Mr. Wilders has gone out of his way several times to make this distinction – it is the religion of Islam he is criticizing as barbaric and dangerous. To the extent that individuals belonging to a religious group follow its strictures to varying degrees (and each insisting that theirs is the ‘true’ way), individual Muslims may or may not represent threats to secular society, just as individual liberals may or not represent threats to capitalism, for example. The courts have ruled precisely along these lines – criticism of ideas does not constitute hate speech, even if those ideas are religious or belong to a minority group.
It is precisely because this case lies on the balance of opposing concerns – distrust of religious extremism and distaste for intolerance – that it can be such a useful case to bring the free speech argument into the public sphere. You don’t have to like Geert Wilders to recognize that categorizing criticism of fanaticism as “hate speech” has very dangerous consequences that will do more to undermine secular society than all the forces of Islamism ever could.
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