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By Index on Censorship / 4 October 2010
It does not matter if you agree with Geert Wilders’s film, Fitna, or his politics. He must not be prosecuted for expressing his views, writes Oliver Kamm
This article was first published on 22 January 2009
Twenty years ago next month the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree calling for the murder of a foreign citizen, Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s crime had been to write a novel. With a few honourable exceptions (President Mitterrand most prominent), western politicians and opinion-formers found it difficult to see what the ensuing fuss was about. Certainly, ran a characteristic equivocation, a threat of violence was unconscionable; but had not Rushdie brought on his fate by needless and provocative offence to the faithful? Had not — in the words of Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi in Great Britain — ‘both Mr Rushdie and the Ayatollah … abused freedom of speech’?
No, they had not; of course. Rushdie writes books. The forces of obscurantism, reaction and bigotry sought to silence him, permanently. Yet the cruel and stupid notion that those who mock people’s deeply held spiritual beliefs deserve censure is with us still. It has even found its way into the legal system of western democracies. This week, a Dutch court ordered prosecutors to indict Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Freedom Party, on charges of ‘inciting hatred and discrimination, based on comments by him in various media on Muslims and their beliefs’. The court thereby reversed a decision of the public prosecutor’s office last year not to pursue charges against Wilders.
Wilders’s populist and nativist politics are exactly opposed to my own views, and entirely beside the point. In a constitutional state, with liberal political rights and the rule of law, a man is being prosecuted for causing offence by expressing his views. Wilders’s protest that the judgement is ‘an attack of freedom of expression’ is scarcely adequate to the infringement on liberty. These proceedings are a monstrous abuse of power. Wilders must be supported.
To see how mired in confusion — to put it no higher — is the political culture of even this most tolerant of European states, you need only consider that the court ‘considers appropriate criminal prosecution for insulting Muslim worshippers because of comparisons between Islam and Nazism made by Wilders’. So criminal law is being invoked against insults to a system of belief. I have no reason to doubt the offence caused to Muslims by Wilders’s campaigns. Mockery and denunciation of what others hold literally sacred will inevitably cause anguish and outrage. And faced with mental suffering on the part of some of its citizens, a free society must do nothing at all. No one is entitled to restitution for hurt feelings: not now; not ever.
The most — and not the least — that religious believers might be entitled to is human sympathy. They won’t get it from me; they might get it from you; but they must not get it as a matter of public policy, because a state has no business concerning itself with how its citizens feel.
Insisting on the right to offend religious believers may seem an unfeeling and uncaring doctrine. (The non sequitur that many Muslims in western societies are poor is often brought into the discussion at this point.) But the case for liberty has never been that it protects sensibilities. It is rather that by allowing people’s beliefs to be scrutinised, criticised and — yes — insulted, bad ideas are more likely to be superseded by better ones. Allowing ideas to die in place of their adherents is a mark of a civilised society. It is not hyperbole to say that in the defence of the unlikely figure of Geert Wilders lies also the defence of western civilisation.
Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The TimesTags: freedom of expression awards | Islam