A muddled piece from Ian Buruma in today's The New York Times, arguing, as far as I can make out, that anti-Islam Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, recently charged with incitement after comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf, should not be defended because he is a boorish racist who doesn't himself believe in free speech. And while Buruma, a Dutch citizen, rightfully criticizes the hypocrisies of Wilders (as I did here and here), he spends little time debating the morality and efficacy of the statutes under which he is being charged. As Buruma points out, Dutch law forbids speech that "deliberately insults people on the grounds of their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation." (The race, religion, and sexual orientation stuff is pretty standard in European hate crime law, but I was unaware that in the Netherlands it's apparently against the law to "insult" someone's "beliefs.")
Comparing a book that billions hold sacred to Hitler's murderous tract is more than an exercise in literary criticism; it suggests that those who believe in the Koran are like Nazis, and an all-out war against them would be justified. This kind of thinking, presumably, is what the Dutch law court is seeking to check.
One of the misconceptions that muddle the West's debate over Islam and free speech is the idea that people should be totally free to insult. Free speech is never that absolute. Even—or perhaps especially—in America, where citizens are protected by the First Amendment, there are certain words and opinions that no civilized person would utter, and others that open the speaker to civil charges.
This does not mean that religious beliefs should be above criticism. And sometimes criticism will be taken as an insult where none is intended. In that case the critic should get the benefit of the doubt. Likening the Koran to "Mein Kampf" would not seem to fall into that category.
If Mr. Wilders were to confine his remarks to those Muslims who do harm freedom of speech by using violence against critics and apostates, he would have a valid point.
So it is a "misconception" that "people should be totally free to insult?" Well why not, in a few brief sentences, explain just how a democratic country should establish limits on free expression? But instead, Buruma ends his piece with a typically mealy-mouthed declaration that he's "not so sure" that the charges against Wilders strike a blow for democracy, though he is clearly less concerned with the European compulsion to prosecute thought criminals than he is with the potential elevation of Wilders to martyr status.
Buruma, who last year called Ayaan Hirsi Ali an "enlightenment fundamentalist," wants us to know that he believes in freedom, largely disagrees with the prosecution of Wilders (though he doesn't register any objection to the Dutch hate crimes law), and thinks that the "boundaries" to free expression are trespassed when a minority group is judged to have been offended. In other words, it's unclear just what he believes (other than his reading of Wilders as an Islamophobic troglodyte).
If Buruma agrees with Dutch ideas of free speech "boundaries," he should come out and say it. Instead, he offers a robust denunciation of Wilders' reductive view of Islam (how brave!) and entirely avoids the question that matters: Where does a democratic country get off dragging controversial politicians before the court?
Bonus quote: Gerard Spong, the lawyer who filed the charges, said that managing to successfully instigate court proceedings against Wilders is his "finest hour." "The American President Barack Obama said 'we are free in diversity' but you can't have diversity if you brand one group as extremists," he told reporters.