Last March, Geert Wilders, the controversial right-wing Dutch Parliamentarian best known for his stance against Muslims and Muslim immigration, stood before supporters at a campaign rally and asked a simple question: "Do you want more Moroccans, or fewer?"
He expected the question to raise enthusiasm among the crowd, and drive his party to greater Parliamentary success. It has also possibly landed him before the courts, to be tried for "hate speech" -- a crime in the Netherlands, which, despite its claims of "freedom of speech," still criminalizes speech that "offends" on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, or even personal convictions and ideology.
Wilders, however, didn't make a statement: he simply asked others what they wanted. It was the Dutch people themselves who, in response, cried out, "Fewer! Fewer!"
Geert Wilders during his March 2014 speech, which may result in criminal charges of "hate speech" against him. (Image source: nos.nl video screenshot)
More problematic is that the prosecution of Wilders's query goes beyond the standard concerns about political correctness. It reaches a point where discussion or debate is impossible because the questions themselves become a crime.
But aren't discussion and debate exactly what democracy is supposed to be about?
The pending case also rips open other problems with European -- and particularly The Netherlands' -- limits on free expression. Restrictions have, in recent years, grown more repressive in response to allegations of "Islamophobia" and attempts by many in Europe's Muslim communities to censor expressions they consider offensive to Islam.
But is the cry of "fewer" really "hate speech"? Or is it the expression of a "personal conviction," perhaps based on a nationalist "ideology," held by many in the crowd -- and therefore, under Dutch laws, protected?
Such laws not only run counter to the basic principles of democracy; they are, in many instances, representative of a duplicitous selective application of the law in Europe. Why are prosecutors going after Wilders, and not, say, after Yasmina Haifi, a (now-former) Dutch intelligence agency employee who in August tweeted that ISIS is Zionist plot -- and insisted that "there is plenty of evidence for this"?
Is the criminalization of hate speech in the Netherlands now dependent only on whom you hate?
In the Netherlands, crime is five times higher among Moroccan youth than among indigenous Dutch. Also, according to statistics released earlier this week, anti-Semitism is rising in the Netherlands, largely among Moroccan and Turkish immigrants and their children.
The question Wilders raised may have been in poor taste; but the answer, arguably in even poorer taste, came from the people, who are entitled to a country in which they can voice their frustration and be heard.
Isn't this protection, too, what democracy is supposed to be about?
The Netherlands is hardly alone in limiting speech it calls "free." In Germany, "incitement of popular hatred" is punishable by five years in prison. In Iceland, insulting a person on basis of nationality, race, religion, or sexual preference can bring a two-year sentence. And earlier this year, Swedish Democratic Party member Michael Hess was fined SK32,000 (about $5000) for "insulting Muslims" when he asserted that rape is "deeply ingrained in Islamic culture."
The Dutch Public Prosecutor's Office has gone after Wilders before: In a lengthy, four-year battle over statements he made to the press in 2007, in which he described Islam as "fascist," Wilders ultimately emerged triumphant.
This time, however, the prosecutors apparently think they have a stronger case. More than 6,400 complaints followed the "Fewer! Fewer!" episode, they claim, suggesting that there was genuine harm done.
But the right of free expression also guarantees the freedom of ideas, states attorney Sheldon Nahmod, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Banning speech does nothing to ban the ideas themselves. It only stifles dialogue. But it is through dialogue and the open exchange of ideas that a society, now free, can learn and grow.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.