Free Speech or Hate Speech?

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.

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Hate speech condemns "hate". you can be critical about religion, or religious people but you can't encourage hate. Law forbidding a critique of religion cannot be rational, since many religious laws are irrational. And we can see this in Poland, some religious people, devotes as someone would call them, start absurd accusations of hurting religious feeling because someone may feel offended how others use 'their' symbols. It is a path to nowhere.

We are dangerously moving towards a major "war" between Christians and Muslims which is foretold as one major signs that judgment day is coming. Europeans are economically vested in Islamic regions not just in oil dependence but in various financial investments. Will these European decisions lead to pulling out from Islamic regions in trade? I doubt it. If in fact, Europeans are not willing to pull out from Islamic regions, then the best decision is to be tolerant of Muslims all over the world. This backlash against all Muslims because of a minority radical group of terrorists is not conducive to the global fight against terrorism. All this will do is merely push more Muslims towards radicalism. Do we actually want to see a war between Muslims and Christians? If we do, then we are looking for doomsday in the very near future.

Europe in my view has a very long and feudal history between many groups of people. WW2 and the Nazi rise seems to exemplify the European condition. Across Europe there have for a long time been very hard nationalistic views. During times of financial turbulence these fractures come to the forefront. Muslims have been and are targeted, so have the Roma and if you’re American – well there is not much love for you either in some places.

A lot of good Europeans are out there but there is a definite scary undertone these days. Many of the young people know little of their history, many want to forget it, and many make excuses that Hitler was not all bad, he made highways, gave jobs….In my opinion unbelievable.

I have to say governments have done little to quell this, choosing to pretend everything is all right when it’s not. I don’t know how some Jewish people live in some places in Europe, I wouldn’t. Neither would I being a foreigner or Muslim in some places.

Free speech is not free speech when it involves destroying the freedom of another. Speech that destroys an others freedom is in my view hate speech not free speech.

While it’s important to express views freely, free speech should not be used to politicize and justify hate towards any group of people.

Free speech should diffuse such hate and ignorance not fuel it.

The article points to a growing problem in Western Europe where right wing political parties exploit fears for the future within the population by telling people that "immigrants" takes their jobs and cheap houses or are the cause of a lot of crime in society.

Before 9/11 those were small racist groups, but after 9/11 with the “war on terror” where every Muslim was treated as a potential terrorist, those right wing groups exploited that. Immigrants now got face: Muslims. And small right wing groups grew as denouncing Muslims as a (potential) danger for Western society became a part of the political talks of mainstream conservative parties.

After the financial crisis of 2008 it were not the bankers who were hold responsible by conservative and most centrist parties, as they were there friends. The anti-immigrant rhetoric got more and more room together with a nationalistic discourse condemning globalization, the European Union, the United Nations or the IMF.

In the Netherlands – where I live – that scenario led to the birth of the so called Freedom Party (PVV) a right wing nationalistic and anti-immigrant party, lead by Geert Wilders. The court case against him showed the change in political discourse. For less anti-immigrant statements a smaller right wing political party was dissolved in the eighties. Now Geert Wilders is seen as “just a right wing politician”.

He is even one of the most influential politicians in the Netherlands now, as he actively supports in parliament a minority cabinet that was formed by the conservative party VVD and the Christian-democratic party CDA. In return he gets anti immigrant and anti Muslim legislation.

Of course the judges are impartial, but of course the current political climate will have been counted by them too. Hate speech – like Geert Wilders does – has become part of the political discourse of today. It are not only right wing fanatics like the guy in Oslo who murdered nearly 100 people who follow those who give hate speeches. With more than a million people who voted for Wilders in the last election more and more people don’t realize how dangerous hate speech is. Mostly because it is sold as the right to speak, the right for free speech as a fundamental civil right. And those who fight hate speech are portrayed as the enemies of free speech. The verdict of the Dutch court was in that discussion not a good signal.

Tom, the problem is how to define "hate" in this context. Mere criticism of Islamic beliefs or practices is commonly construed as "hate speech" by vocal Muslims, and death threats are routinely directed at the speaker - and sometimes followed through (ever heard of Theo van Gogh?). Better to leave everyone free to openly say just what they believe, and let the concepts expressed compete in the marketplace of ideas.

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