Ian Buruma has a piece in the NY Times about Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament, who seems to be Holland's answer to Michelle Malkin, or Pam Atlas, or any of the other rabid right-wingers in this country who are convinced that Islam ought to be scrubbed from the face of the earth. He wants to ban the Koran from Holland, and he compares it to Mein Kampf, which is already banned. We're not talking about the most lucid person here.
Problem is, the Dutch government has permission to prosecute Wilders for hate speech.
Yet last week an Amsterdam court decided that Mr. Wilders should be prosecuted for “insulting” and “spreading hatred” against Muslims. Dutch criminal law can be invoked against anyone who “deliberately insults people on the grounds of their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation.”That's bothersome to me, and not for the reasons Buruma puts out there. When responding to a professor who noted that being prosecuted for criticizing a book seemed strange, Buruma said:
This seems a trifle obtuse. 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.Buruma is talking about two different classes of speech here. For starters, here in the US, you can pretty much insult people however you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with little fear of legal repercussion. In fact, you're more likely to get police protection to do your insulting than you are to be arrested by them. Ask the police who do crowd control at Klan rallies. Ask the cops who make sure street preachers like Brother Micah don't get pounded by people who've just been called whores and sinners.
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.
The kind of speech that opens people up to civil charges is slanderous or libelous, and both examples have to clear a pretty high bar, especially if the person being talked about is a public figure. The plaintiff has to prove that the charges are false, that the person making them knew it, and that they did so maliciously. That's why it's so rare for a tabloid magazine to be successfully sued for libel. What Wilders said wouldn't even raise much of an eyebrow in some parts of the US, and in others, would only be notable in that it sounds like so much that comes out of a particularly noxious part of the internet. But prosecutable? Not a chance.
I think my biggest problem with Buruma's approach comes from the fundamental disagreement we have over how much the government should be involved in censoring speech. For instance, I think that banning Mein Kampf is a mistake, just as I think banning Holocaust denial is a mistake. When a government takes the extreme step of banning books or arguments, it gives them an unearned legitimacy. Better to force Holocaust deniers to back up their claims in the open air, so they can be openly ridiculed, than to allow the claimants to say "the government has banned us because it has something to hide."
And I also think it's impossible to separate criticism of a religion from criticism of the people who follow it, at least if you're constantly having to worry about being sued or prosecuted if you do it. For instance, if the US had the same laws as Holland, I'd have to really consider whether or not I'd blog about religion at all; why chance writing about Pope Benedict's revocation of a Holocaust denier's excommunication and his reinstatement into a place of power in the church? I could potentially be sued for hinting that the Catholic Church, and by extension, all Catholics, supported Holocaust denial. I don't believe that, and would never say it, but if the Church wanted to make my life miserable, they could sue me under those grounds and I'd have to eat the cost of my defense (which I couldn't). It's an unreasonable restriction on speech.
Wilders is a perfect example of the unlikeable defendant. He's Larry Flynt, only he hates Muslims instead of women and Jerry Falwell. I would just as soon he disappeared from the public scene, but only because he's been discredited, not because a government decided that what he was saying was illegal.