(H/T to Jerry Coyne.) The New York Times reports that the long-awaited criminal trial of Geert Wilders begins today.
Love Wilders or hate him - I have plenty of reservations about him and would certainly not vote for him - he should not be convicted of a criminal offence for making the short movie Fitna or for comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf. The latter is doubtless offensive to Muslims, but it's his opinion ... and no one should be given a right to go through life without being exposed to opinions and ideas that she finds offensive. Fitna is open to interpretation, of course. Perhaps it contains an unsavoury message, though the main message seems to be that the holy texts of Islam contain material that can inspire terrorism. I would have thought that was obvious.
The Koran itself is also open to interpretation. Its own most unsavoury passages may be exhortations by Muhammad that related only to specific times, places, and circumstances when his forces were at war. However, when the Koran is held out as a holy book of timeless application, it's not surprising that some Muslims, and of course some non-Muslims, interpret those passages as God-backed calls for ongoing violent struggle against Jews, Christians, pagans, and the non-Muslim world in general. Muslims have a responsibility to do something about this: at the very minimum they must ensure that all young people brought up in their faith are taught that the passages concerned do not apply today. That's a big challenge, so how about they get on with it?
They do themselves no favours when they lobby governments to suppress the speech of someone like Wilders. That fails to take the real problem seriously; it will make Islam even more commonly feared and despised in the West, since it will appear even more to be an enemy of individual liberty, particularly if Wilders is convicted; and even if Wilders is eventually acquitted, it turns him into a martyr for liberal freedoms. He already looks like what he is - a man who is being persecuted by the overwhelming power of the state just for saying something.
However you interpret Fitna, it is not the kind of thing that should be banned, much less punished by the criminal law. It is legitimate expression of ideas. But don't take my word for it. Go and watch if for yourself.
Whatever you think of Fitna, once you've seen it and reflected on it, its message can be opposed by further speech, e.g. by speech that freely and honestly acknowledges the problematic passages in the Koran and explains the historical context - then urges that these passages not be acted upon today. Coming from Muslim jurists and community leaders, that could be a socially valuable contribution to debate in a free society. For whatever reason, it's a contribution that they all-too-seldom seem prepared to make. It seems, all too often, that they'd rather suppress other people's viewpoints than put forward useful views of their own. Come on folks, why not rise to the challenge? Don't complain about a lack of access to the media; Muslim leaders in the West have plenty of media access if they want it.
In any event, Fitna is not the kind of immediate incitement to violence that John Stuart Mill spoke of when he said it is acceptable to ban the speech of a demagogue addressing a mob outside the home of someone it is likely to lynch. More precisely, his example is an enraged mob outside the home of a corn dealer, and the demagogue telling them, "Corn dealers are starvers of the poor." In the latter case, there's no time for any other response, and a ban is needed. There may be other cases where it is futile to respond even to less immediate incitements of violence, and there will be grey areas where a line has to be drawn. The place to draw that line is somewhere within the field of incitements to violence that are at least clear and direct. Mill made the point that it should be acceptable for the sentiment that corn dealers are starvers of the poor to be published in a newspaper, where the context is very different.
Make no mistake. It's not just Geert Wilders who is now on trial. The Netherlands is now on trial. If it convicts Wilders of a crime, then it will have demonstrated to the rest of the world that it is now a country where freedom of speech, as Mill understood it, has gone. Watch the developments in this case carefully.