Holland put Geert Wilders on trial in the first purely political trial since the end of the cold war.
Today is a big day in Europe, though you wouldn’t know it if you relied on the continent’s leading newspapers and television stations. It’s not that the resumption of the trial of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands for insulting Islam is being completely ignored. Even the BBC has managed a short piece anouncing the event on its website.
It’s just that given the scale of its importance, it is deeply disturbing that it is effectively being demoted to what at best should be seen as a curiosity, and at worst as another example of the rise of the far right in an increasingly xenophobic Europe. So, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of precisely what is now going on in what was once considered Europe’s most libertarian-minded polity, and what this all means for the rest of us.
The key thing to note is that this is a political trial — the first of its kind in any mature European democracy since the end of the Cold War, and possibly since the end of World War II. If found guilty, Wilders could face a jail sentence at which point he would become a political prisoner.
Of course, the Dutch authorities would reject such a characterisation: Wilders is formally being charged with inciting hatred, against Muslims. The charges centre around a short film called Fitna which Wilders made in 2008 citing passages of the Koran and juxtaposing them with images of Islamist terrorism, the subjugation of women and homosexuals, and the application of extreme forms of Sharia law in Muslim societies. In the film and elsewhere, Wilders compares Islam to fascism and the Koran to Mein Kampf.
Strong stuff, to be sure. But too strong for a healthy, democratic society? There are a number of reasons why the Wilders trial does in fact meet the criteria for a political rather than a criminal trial:
First, Wilders is a leading Dutch politician. Indeed, following the recent elections his party has emerged as kingmaker for the new government which it will support in parliament without actually joining it in a formal capacity. The Dutch establishment is frightened of his growing influence and having failed over the years to stop Wilders at the polls is looking for extra-parliamentary methods to suppress him. Of course, the fact that sections of the Dutch establishment have ulterior motives does not in itself mean that a case against him could not be brought for legitimate motives. It is nonetheless important to understand the broader context as we consider the threadbare nature of the case that prosecutors have brought against him.
So, second, the charges themselves are blatantly discriminatory in that they single out harsh criticism of Muslims as opposed to harsh criticism levelled against other members of society. Consider that it is Wilder’s misuse of the term fascism that is held by prosecutors to be among the most grievous instances of his incitement to hatred. But misuse of the term fascism has been practically a staple of leftist discourse against pretty well anyone who has got in their way since the end of World War II. Defaming people, parties, politicians and others as “fascists” is a practice that has been participated in by millions, a point I made in my book A State Beyond the Pale. Margaret Thatcher was a “fascist”. George Bush was a “fascist”. The police were “fascists”. The Catholic Church was “fascist”. Conservatives were “fascists”.
There is really no way out of this for the Dutch judicial authorities. Either they must provide a convincing explanation as to why use of such insulting terminology is an actionable offence when applied against Muslims while it is not an actionable offence when applied against other groups, or they must simply accept that they are conducting a political trial. Since there is no conceivable explanation along such lines, the political nature of the trial is indisputable.
The third issue to bear in mind is that Wilders does not incite violence. Indeed he has repeatedly denounced it and told his supporters to pursue peaceful and democratic avenues. Similarly, he explicitly eschews condemnation of individual Muslims. He depicts Islam as an ideology as much as a religion and it is on this basis that he makes his case against the teachings of the Koran.
Now, one can disagree with that characterisation. Personally, I regard his arguments in this respect as unsustainable. There are simply too many disparate (and often contradictory) elements to draw upon in any religious document to describe it in terms of an ideology. But that is the point: “one can disagree” with him. Or at least, in a free society one should be able to disagree with him, and in so doing one can help promote a more enlightened and convincing narrative about the undoubted problems with significant movements inside the global Islamic community. But one can’t disagree with someone whose views have been suppressed. And without the possibility of disagreement, debate becomes impossible and freedom of speech no longer applies as a formative principle in the society in which one lives.
Geert Wilders goes back on trial today. But Dutch and, by extension, European democracy is on trial too. The fact that so few people of influence in government and media can see the significance of all this is perhaps the most worrying thing of all.