Center for Strategic Communication

by R. Bennett Furlow

Geert Wilders is a Dutch parliamentarian and head of the Party for Freedom (PVV).  He is also a very clear opponent of Islam.  Most critics of Islam are very careful to say that they oppose “radical Islam” or “Islamism” or “Islamic extremism,” but have no problem with the religion as a whole.  Not Wilders.  He has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he “hate[s] Islam.” He has compared the Qur’an to Mein Kampf, referred to Islam as fascist, and made a film, Fitna,(“discord” in Arabic), that juxtaposes passages from the Qur’an with images of 9/11, the Madrid bombings and other acts of terrorism.

Normally, unless their words lead directly to violence, advocates of hate can be dismissed.  Wilders gets a little more attention because he is an elected politician and is adept at using the media to promote himself and his beliefs.  Recently two things occurred that raised Wilders’ status.  First, he was banned from entering the United Kingdom.  This was seen by many (not just his supporters) as a violation of freedom of speech.  The ban was later overturned.  Second, Wilders was charged with violating hate speech laws in his native Netherlands.  Once again, Wilders is crying foul and saying his freedom of speech is being violated.  Wilders’ trial began January 20th.

The issue of Geert Wilders boils down to one of hate speech versus free speech.  Certainly one should be allowed to express one’s opinion freely and without fear of prosecution, but there are hate speech laws for a reason.  If Wilders’ intent is to bring about hostility toward a group (Muslims) then his speech is “hate speech” and the prosecution is justified.  If it is merely criticism, and not intended to cause harm to anyone then it is free speech and the prosecution is unjustified.  However, Wilders seems to want to make his trial not just about free speech but about Islam as well.  In a statement to the court Wilders said:

This trial is obviously about the freedom of speech.  But this trial is also about the process of establishing the truth.  Are the statements that I have made and the comparisons that I have taken, as cited in the summons, true?  If something is true then can it still be punishable?  This is why I urge you to not only submit to my request to hear witnesses and experts on the subject of freedom of speech.  But I ask you explicitly to honour my request to hear witnesses and experts on the subject of Islam.  I refer not only to Mister Jansen and Mister Admiraal, but also to the witness/experts from Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom.  Without these witnesses, I cannot defend myself properly and, in  my opinion, this would not be a fair trial.

Among those Wilders wants to call as “experts” are Robert Spencer, Wafa Sultan and Andrew Bostom, all of whom are highly critical of Islam.

The Wilders case illustrates a larger problem in Dutch society, and potentially across Europe.  While approximately five percent of the Netherlands is Muslim, they are increasingly victims of prejudice and even persecution.  Filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed by a Dutch Muslim (of Moroccan decent) over his short film, Submission,which crudely criticized Islam’s treatment of women.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a native Somali and former Dutch parliamentarian went into seclusion for a period and has since had significant security because of her statements about Islam (she was the writer of Submission).  These acts have in turn lead to an increase in attacks against Muslims in the Netherlands, including the burning of a Muslim school among other acts of violence.  Muslims in the Netherlands have a very low voter turnout rate.  They tend to be insular and stay within their particular communities, causing them to identify more and more with their  religion and less with their ethnicity or nationality.

A pattern has developed over the past ten years or so that goes as follows: A prominent non-Muslim figure speaks out against Islam, a Muslim reacts, sometimes violently, leading to more statements and actions against Islam, again a Muslim reacts, and so on.  All the while the Muslim community begins to turn further inward and embraces the status of a marginalized outsider.  The alienation of the Muslim community will obviously only create more strife and tension.  If this pattern continues, things will only get worse in the Netherlands, for both Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The real issue in the Wilders case is one of motivation.  What is the purpose of his statements?  What is the strategic goal of this level of discourse?  Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and others use language like “infidel”, “crusader” and “apostate” to define their enemy in terms of “otherness.”  Once the designated (often abstract) enemy is seen as a violent oppressor it is easier to recruit followers and continue the cycle of violence, or so the theory goes.

Wilders seems to be the flip side of the coin.  His statements are attempts to define Islam not just in negative terms, but as a threat that should be met with violence.  He seems to desire a “clash of civilizations” much like Bin Laden.  Otherwise what is the point of his speech?  Obviously there is not going to be a mass exodus of Muslims from the Netherlands, nor are they going to convert to Christianity en masse.  So if violence is not the point, what is?

When a Muslim extremist commits an act of violence, many in the West call on extremist Muslim preachers to be held accountable for their inflammatory rhetoric.  This trial is the Dutch people calling Wilders out.  If his language is something beneficial to the people of the Netherlands, then he and others like him need to prove it by clarifying their goals.  Otherwise they are doing nothing but furthering the cycle of animosity and violence.