In March 2014, during a rally in The Hague, Geert Wilders asked his supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands, where Dutch Moroccans constitute 2 percent of the population. “Fewer, fewer!” the crowd chanted. “Then we will arrange that,” the Dutch politician responded, flashing a smile. The remarks lasted only seconds, but they launched a years-long legal battle that resulted, this week, in a trial. Wilders is facing charges of deliberately insulting a group of people based on their race and inciting discrimination and hatred against them.
Over the next few weeks, the trial will revolve around one question, The Wall Street Journal reports: “Is the right of free speech for politicians absolute, or should it be restricted to protect against discrimination?”
Here’s the moment when prosecutors claim Wilders’s free speech veered into hate speech:
The boundaries between free speech and hate speech have always been blurry. But they’re coming under scrutiny in many liberal democracies as a new crop of nativist, populist politicians reject the polite discourse of political elites and argue that globalization has undermined national identity and national sovereignty. These politicians say free trade, mass migration, international organizations, and the like are threatening the state’s core functions: controlling its borders, providing economic opportunity, and preventing crime and violence. They often define national identity and the national interest narrowly and exclusively, blaming social ills on particular racial, religious, or ethnic groups.
In the United States, for instance, Donald Trump has described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, proposed a temporary ban on Muslim migration to America, and called for the mass deportation of illegal immigrants and Syrian refugees. He and his surrogates have softened these positions over the course of the campaign. But they haven’t done so because they’re concerned about violating hate-speech laws. As the law professor Eugene Volokh has written, there is generally no exception to the First Amendment for hateful ideas: In America, “One is as free to condemn Islam—or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal aliens, or native-born citizens—as one is to condemn capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans.” (Wilders is an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s and attended the Republican National Convention in July.)
Many European countries, by contrast, have laws against hate speech, in part as a response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Last year, for example, the right-wing French leader Marine Le Pen went on trial for incitement after likening Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France. (Le Pen was eventually acquitted.) Liberal democracies are all situated somewhere on the spectrum between absolute sensitivity and absolute free speech, and they’re being forced to reassess where they stand in this new age of nativism.
Wilders, the leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom, has been in the courtroom before. In 2011, he was acquitted of hate-speech charges after comparing the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and repeatedly denouncing Islam. A year before the verdict, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad examined Wilders’s rhetoric from the perspective of Dutch Muslims:
Day in and day out, Dutch Muslims are told their religion is “a fascist ideology” and “a threat to Dutch society.” They hear their “so-called prophet Muhammad” is “a barbarian, a mass murderer and a paedophile,” or words to that effect. The indignities come from a member of parliament: Geert Wilders.
In the 2011 case, the judge ruled that while Wilders’s comments were “offensive” and “shocking,” they were not criminal because they came in the context of a political debate about Muslim integration and multiculturalism in the Netherlands. The court’s decision raised the question: Was there any context in which such comments by a politician would be considered unlawful, given that politicians are always participating in public debates?
By December, we may have an answer. This time, prosecutors argue, Wilders targeted a specific group—all Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands—rather than, say, convicted Moroccan criminals or the entire religion of Islam, which might have been permissible under Dutch free-speech laws. “Islam is an idea, a religion, but according to the public prosecution service, you have a lot of room to criticize ideas, but when it comes to population groups, it’s a whole different matter,” as a spokesman for the Dutch public prosecutor’s office put it to The New York Times. In other words, Wilders’s remarks were specific enough to single out an ethnic minority in the country and general enough to potentially turn people against that group as a whole. (Ahead of March 2017 elections, which his party could win, Wilders has also advocated closing mosques and Islamic schools in the Netherlands, banning the Koran in the country, and halting immigration from Muslim nations.)
Wilders, for his part, argues that he was exercising his freedom of speech and that he is being persecuted for political incorrectness. He claims that he is engaging in a legitimate political debate about legitimate issues—that Dutch Moroccans are overrepresented in the ranks of Dutch criminals, that many Dutch jihadists in Syria are of Moroccan descent, and that millions of Dutch citizens support his plan to limit the number of Moroccan immigrants who enter the country. In a nod to the fuzzy boundaries between free speech and hate speech, he notes that other Dutch politicians have spoken disparagingly of Moroccan or Turkish immigrants without being prosecuted.
Ultimately, however, the trial is about more than Geert Wilders or even the frontiers of a politician’s free speech. It’s about a debate over the changing nature of territory, security, and identity that was once stifled but keeps getting louder.
In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2008, the Dutch author Ian Buruma placed Wilders’s movement in a larger context, following the assassinations of two prominent Dutch critics of Islam, Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, in the early 2000s. “Immigration and the Muslim issue in particular has become the focal point of a much larger sense of anxiety which has to do with the European Union, globalization, erosion of the authority of the nation-state, and economic uncertainty,” Buruma explained. “That general sense of insecurity and resentment makes a country very vulnerable to the kind of populist demagoguery that you get from people like Wilders and Pim Fortuyn before him.” Their brand of demagoguery “is based on the idea that we live in a free country and our liberties are being threatened by foreigners.”
Asked whether the Netherlands’ ideals of tolerance and liberalism—the result in part of guilt about the murder of Dutch Jews under a Nazi government during World War II—were fading, Buruma argued that the country’s experience of fascism had left both positive and negative legacies. “It did a lot to drive tolerance, but it also stifled necessary debate,” he said. “As soon as people started talking about the potential problems of integrating large numbers of non-Western immigrants in Europe in the 1990s, they were quickly denounced as racists, with people evoking the war in a knee-jerk reaction. By the same token, other people, including [Theo] van Gogh, suggest that anybody who makes accommodations to Muslims in Europe (who these detractors call the ‘Islamofascists’) is tantamount to a Nazi collaborator. This kind of response also silences the debate.”
“Perhaps as a reaction to years of having to be discreet because of political correctness, the debate has become overheated,” Buruma said. The Netherlands, he was suggesting, never had a proper public discussion about multiculturalism and the country’s place in a globalized world. Into the void stepped Geert Wilders.