Two weeks ago, Dutch far-right populist politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims. While the court found that some of Wilders' comments were insulting, shocking, and on the edge of legal acceptability, they found him not guilty of all charges with the justification that Wilders' comments were made in the broader context of the public debate on immigration, multiculturalism, and identity—a fierce debate which is taking place not just in the Netherlands but across the whole of Europe.
One of the defining features of this debate—a favorite amongst populist and right wing parties—is the unfair and freely expressed targeting of groups of people who belong to a particular religion, race, or part of the world. This debate uses anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric freely and without challenge. As expressed by Conservative politician Sayeeda Warsi earlier this year, Islamophobia has become "socially acceptable," and not just in Britain but also in France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and beyond.
The Wilders' case in particular has raised questions about the boundaries between freedom of expression and hate speech. When does the right to freely express one's opinions override the rights to dignity and respect? Is it really when the "context is appropriate," and how can the context ever really be judged to be appropriate, and by whose standards? As Aydin Akkaya, president of an umbrella organization for Turks living in the Holland fears, the verdict "means that everything is permitted in the Netherlands as long as you find the right context. [...] What's next to be thrown in our face?"
The answer is sadly evident. In the past two weeks in the Netherlands, proposals to ban ritual slaughter (which will impact both Jews and Muslims) and the full-face veil have been discussed in parliament with the real probability that they will come into effect (this past spring, the Open Society Foundations released a report on a similar ban in France); and the PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid) has appealed to the Dutch interior minister to treat Dutch-born citizens of the Netherlands with foreign grandparents as "immigrants."
In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party, appeals to voters by "warning against refugees from Tunisia, and against immigrants in general" and "demands social welfare systems for the French instead of for immigrants." These are just recent examples of how this broader debate is centered around the scapegoating and fear-mongering of certain groups of people (namely Muslims, asylum seekers, migrants, and Roma). And next week, and the week after that, there will be more examples because it seems that in the context of this debate, some people's rights trump others.
In an opinion piece for the Huffington Post, John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani discuss the perceived (and abused) conflict between freedom of speech and religious tolerance that we see manifest in this debate. The two are and must be regarded as compatible, the authors argue, to ensure equal treatment, rights, and protections for all. It is a message that should not be ignored and which is becoming increasingly urgent.
Against this backdrop, our At Home in Europe Project research and advocacy, on the status of minorities in a changing Europe, strive to identify approaches that will promote this compatibility.