Freedom of intolerance

Alphia Abdikeeva, CIDH Pro Igual

As was to be expected, Geert Wilders was acquitted of hate speech against Muslims. The media reported that the case tested limits of freedom of speech in a “traditionally liberal” country. But could it be that the case merely tested the limits of intolerance?

Indeed, The Netherlands has been traditionally considered a “liberal” country. But perhaps we should specify what we mean by “liberal”, as it may mean different things to different people. For some, the US democrats are “liberals”; for others, staunch free marketeers are “liberals”. Some assume that not killing opposition members is a sign of “liberalism”; yet others might mean something completely different. Let´s face it: for many people outside of The Netherlands, its “liberalism” essentially equals the red lights district plus permissive soft drugs policies (a propos, something that the Wilders´ party has vowed to do away with).

But if you belong to the first, second, third or other generation of non-European immigrants, especially if you look Muslim (whatever that might mean to different people), and especially if you insist on doing “Muslim things” (whatever that might mean to different people), then you are entitled to have your doubts about the Dutch “liberalism.” The Volendam girl expelled from a school for wearing a headscarf is certainly entitled to have her doubts.

Many critics point out that freedom of expression, including religious expression, is applied inconsistently across Europe; The Netherlands is no exception. For example, Muslim women are not permitted to wear headscarves in a number of countries, even though nobody has any issues with the nuns´ outfits. Holocaust denial is outlawed in several countries, but speech that offends Muslims´ religious feelings is permitted (remember the Danish cartoons?) And now hate speech against Muslims as a group has also been upheld in the Dutch court.

In my opinion, there is formidable consistency of Dutch, or for that matter European, attitudes towards Muslims. This consistency is manifested in two clear patterns. Pattern I: religious expression of Muslims is curbed. Pattern II: anti-Muslim expression is protected. To put it bluntly, intolerance against Muslims is not intolerance, it is freedom.

So, it appears that the Netherlands has just got itself a new right: freedom of intolerance. But this is hardly an achievement to be proud of.