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Caving in to Islamists

CAN this be right? Last month I wondered aloud whether 2009 would differ from previous years and see a reinvigoration of the West’s commitment to free speech. Instead, with January not yet over, another assault on freedom of expression has arrived portending yet another year of stifled speech.

Last Wednesday, a Dutch court ordered the prosecution of far right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders for inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims in his film, Fitna. The three-judge appeals panel said: “The instigation of hatred in a democratic society constitutes such a serious matter (that it is necessary) to draw a clear boundary in the public debate.”

In response to many public complaints against Wilders, the court rejected the original view of Dutch prosecutors who, back in June, said: “That comments are hurtful and offensive for a large number of Muslims does not mean that they are punishable. Freedom of expression fulfils an essential role in public debate in a democratic society. That means that offensive comments can be made in a political debate.”

It’s too bad that the judges on the appeals court felt pressured to order a prosecution. In so doing, they exposed the West’s feeble commitment to free speech. This is not about supporting the views of Wilders, who in his short film, likens the Koran to Mein Kampf, caricatures the prophet Mohammed and includes footage of Muslim acts of violence and hatred. However, it would be remiss not to point out that Wilders damns Muslims using their own actions, showing, to take just one example, Muslim demonstrators wielding “God Bless Hitler” placards.

That aside, a significant distinguishing feature between Muslim countries and the West has been our belief in freedom of expression. It was no surprise that Wilders’s controversial film led to protests in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Indonesia. Muslim countries have a long and poor record when it comes to defending freedom of speech or allowing criticism of their faith. But when complaints in the heart of Enlightenment Europe lead prosecutors to put Wilders on trial, facing a jail term of two years for expressing his opinions, then the tyranny of thought police has truly taken hold in the West.

The Dutch MP with the flamboyant hair style has opinions that are surely offensive, perhaps hurtful and even hateful. You may say Wilders is wrong. Indeed, feel free to do so. But to prosecute a man for his offensive views is, on so many levels, even more wrong. Let me count the ways.

The Netherlands - often lauded as the home of Western civility - has mistaken tolerance for anesthesia. Eager to filter out jarring, uncomfortable views, putting us to sleep with consensus and anodyne niceness, Dutch authorities have strayed far from the true value of freedom of expression. They have forgotten progress rarely occurs without controversy. The best ideas - including those that are uncomfortable or even, at first glance, outlandish - are the ones that prevail when tested in the furnace of opposition.

It would be grand if Wilders’ colleagues in the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) and his other supporters backed him on free speech grounds rather than merely because they are opposed to Muslim immigration.

But if we truly value free speech we can’t always pick and choose our allies. Defending the expression of views we share is the easy bit. Our commitment to freedom of expression is only truly tested when we are asked to defend the expression of views by those with whom we disagree, no matter whether we find their views personally offensive.

So what say the political opponents of Wilders about his right to express his views? As so often is the case, not much. Or worse, they support the prosecution of his words and thoughts. The opportunity for short-term political advantage triumphs over long term principle with disturbing frequency.

Prosecute people for their offensive words and three things happen as sure as the sun rises in the morning. First, offensive opinions may be suppressed but that won’t make them go away. They are driven underground where they avoid the blowtorch of robust public debate and often become more powerful as they fester. Exposing even the most offensive or hateful views to public scrutiny - whether you then argue with them or choose to ignore them - is the best way to defeat them. This was John Howard’s insight into Pauline Hanson. Her views might attract short-term support but would ultimately die naturally if exposed to the sunlight.

Second, when we prosecute people for their words, society unwittingly encourages those with hateful views to become heroes, martyrs to their cause. Though not prosecuted for her views, Hanson demonstrated this principle also in Australia. The attempt by urban elites to shut her down only strengthened her attractions in many parts of Australia.

And third, bringing actions such as those against Wilders creates some very perverse incentives. Prosecuting at the request of the thin-skinned rewards preciousness and indeed encourages it. With such returns for sensitivity we can expect increasing claims to protection from free speech and increasing censorship. The unwitting result is a society that has strayed so far from the correct understanding of free speech that The Wall Street Journal was right to suggest the Dutch have started importing Muslim standards of censorship.

The most generous interpretation of the Wilders prosecution is that good intentions have gone badly astray. But perhaps something more sinister is happening. Many in the West have a knack for dressing up their own occasional totalitarian tendencies in fine-sounding language.

The Dutch appeals court said that the prosecution of Wilders is justified on the grounds that his film was inciting violence. But it turns out that the only violence incited by Fitna, released on the internet in March 2008, was not against Muslims but by Muslims against the West. In other words, the phrase “inciting violence” has been rendered meaningless, stretched to stifle views that merely offend. It may be sensible to prohibit words that genuinely incite violence. But the Wilders case shows how easy it is to use this test as camouflage to censor views that are uncomfortable. Writing about the increasingly vacuous claims of Islamophobia in Forbes magazine, Elisabeth Eaves suggested a good litmus test for whether a law makes any sense: “If the ‘crime’ in question can only be described using the word for an emotion, like ‘hate’ or ‘phobia,’ then we have wandered into thought-police territory.”

The Netherlands is a striking example of how a noble quest to produce a tolerant society can be hijacked by social engineers opposed to free speech. With our myriad vilification laws, Australia needs to heed the lessons from the Dutch before we make the same disastrous blunders.

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