Europe is currently seeing the reintroduction of blasphemy laws through both the front and back doors. In Britain, the gymnast Louis Smith has just been suspended for two months by British Gymnastics. This 27-year old sportsman's career has been put on hold, and potentially ruined, not because of anything to do with athletics but because of something to do with Islam.
Last month a video emerged online of the four-time Olympic
medal-winner and a friend getting up to drunken antics after a wedding.
The video -- taken on Smith's phone in the early hours of the morning --
showed a friend taking a rug off a wall and doing an imitation of
Islamic prayer rituals. When the video from Smith's phone ended up in
the hands of a newspaper, there was an immediate investigation, press
castigation and public humiliation for the young athlete. Smith -- who
is himself of mixed race -- was forced to parade on daytime television
in Britain and deny that he is a racist, bigot or xenophobe. Notoriously
liberal figures from the UK media queued up to berate him for getting
drunk or for even thinking of taking part in any mockery of religion.
This in a country in which Monty Python's Life of Brian is regularly voted the nation's favourite comic movie.
After an "investigation," the British sports authority has now deemed Smith's behaviour to warrant a removal of funding and a two-month ban
from sport. This is the re-entry of blasphemy laws through the back
door, where newspapers, daytime chat-shows and sports authorities decide
between them that one religion is worthy of particular protection. They
do so because they take the religion of Islam uniquely on its own
estimation and believe, as well as fear, the warnings of the Islamic
The front-door reintroduction of blasphemy laws, meantime, is being
initiated in a country which once prided itself on being among the first
in the world to throw off clerical intrusion into politics. The Dutch
politician Geert Wilders has been put on trial before. In 2010 he was
tried in the courts for the contents of his film "Fitna" as well as a
number of articles. The trial collapsed
after one of the expert witnesses -- the late, great Dutch scholar of
Islam, Hans Jansen -- revealed that a judge in the case had tried in
private to influence him to change his testimony. The trial was
transparently rigged and made Dutch justice look like that of a tin-pot
dictatorship rather than one of the world's most developed democracies.
The trial was rescheduled and, after considerable legal wrangling,
Wilders was eventually found "not guilty" of a non-crime in 2011.
But it seems that the Dutch legal system, like the Mounties, is intent on always getting its man. On Monday of this week the latest trial
of Geert Wilders got underway in Holland. This time Wilders is being
tried because of a statement at a rally in front of his supporters in
March 2014. Ahead of municipal elections, and following reports of a
disproportionate amount of crimes being committed in Holland by Muslims
of Moroccan origin, Wilders asked a crowd, "Do you want more or fewer
Moroccans in this city and in the Netherlands?" The audience responded,
"Fewer, fewer." To which Wilders responded, "Well, we'll arrange that,
Opinion polls suggest that around half the Dutch public want fewer
Moroccans in the Netherlands and many opinion polls going back decades
suggest that the Dutch people want less immigration in general. So at
the very least Wilders is being put on trial for voicing an opinion
which is far from fringe. The long-term implications for Dutch democracy
of criminalizing a majority opinion are catastrophic. But the trial of
Wilders is also a nakedly political move.
Whether or not one feels any support for Wilders's sentiments is not
in fact the point in this case. The point is that by prosecuting someone
for saying what he said, the courts in Holland are effectively ruling
that there is only one correct answer to the question Wilders asked.
They are saying that if someone asks you whether you would like more
Moroccans or fewer, people must always answer "more," or they will be
committing a crime. What kind of way is that to order a public debate on
immigration or anything else? People may say, "He wouldn't be allowed
to say that about any other group of people." And Wilders himself may
not say that about any group of people, because he has his own political
views and his own interpretation of the problems facing his country.
It is worth trying a thought-experiment: If Wilders or any other politician got up and asked a crowd "Do you want more or fewer British
people in Holland," I may not -- as a British person -- feel terribly
pleased with him for asking the question, or terribly happy with the
crowd if they chanted "Fewer." Although if British expats in Holland
were responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime and disorder in
the country, some mitigating sympathy for the sentiment may be
forthcoming. But at no point would it occur to me that anyone saying he
did not want an endless flow of British people coming into the
Netherlands should be prosecuted. Nor would he be.
Like the behaviour of the British Gymnastics association, the Dutch
courts are behaving like a religious court. They are trying to regulate
public expression and opinion when it comes to the followers of one
religion. In so doing, they obviously aspire to keep the peace in the
short term, but they cannot possibly realise what trouble they are
storing up for our future.