Geert Wilders comes to town this week as Exhibit No. 1 of why the Europeans no longer matter. Even our British cousins, who not so long ago bristled at even being called Europeans, have abandoned their ancient traditions of free speech.
Mr. Wilders is a member of the Dutch parliament, but to the irritation of the Dutch government he has become more than a mere parliamentarian, embracing the role of Jeremiah, warning that the Europeans are succumbing without even a whimper to radical Islam. He exaggerates, as a Jeremiah can do. You can occasionally hear a whimper or two.
When he was invited by the House of Lords a fortnight ago to show his documentary film about radical Muslims and their vow to conquer the world for Islam, he was denied entry into Britain. The only explanation he got was this whimper from the British government: “The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film ‘Fitna’ and elsewhere, would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the United Kingdom.” (“Fitna” is available on YouTube.)
Britons, to be sure, have no First Amendment, the Constitutional guarantee that every citizen has the right to say whatever he pleases. The glory of the First Amendment is that it does not guarantee responsible or speech, but even irresponsible speech short of crying fire! in a crowded theater. But our Constitution was, after all, written by Englishmen, inspired and guided by the fiercely held notions of freedom and liberty inherited from their forbears. Alas, the bulldog lies grievously wounded.
Mr. Wilders did not expect to get the treatment from the Anglo-Saxons - loosely described - that he gets in his own country, where skeptics of Islam risk ambush and gruesome death, where weakness is prized and where he has been called to answer to criminal charges that he has defamed the Prophet and the followers of a religion for the eighth century (and which has not changed much since). A Dutch appeals court has ordered prosecutors to file proceedings against Mr. Wilders for “inciting hatred and discrimination” and “insulting Muslim worshippers.”
Many Muslims in the Netherlands, like Muslims in many other places, regard any criticism of the Prophet and Islam as disrespect, blasphemy and “Islamaphobia” to be severely punished, sometimes by death. The Dutch government was pressured to proceed against Mr. Wilders by Islamic “human rights groups.” These groups do not define “human rights” as we do in the West. “Human rights” as we define them do not exist in Islamic countries, where followers of other faiths are harassed, persecuted and sometimes killed for “unbelief.”
In his anger and outrage, Mr. Wilders is sometimes unable to resist the temptation to go over the top in his contempt for Islam. He has compared the Koran to “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s dense and all but unreadable masterwork, and urges that the Koran be banned in the Netherlands for inciting violence. It’s difficult to reconcile an author’s demand to ban some books while invoking free speech to protect his own. When Mr. Wilders appears Friday at the National Press Club to show his film, he could be asked to explain this contradiction.
Nevertheless, his courage is unquestioned. The attacks on him follow the slayings of Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician, and Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker, by Muslim vigilantes as punishment for “abusing free speech.” Criticism of religion, a given in the West that is often regretted but never punished, has become a cottage industry in the West. Learned professors and pundits write books mocking Christian faith; one skeptic even made a movie ridiculing religion. Nobody much went to see it but nobody tried to stop him from having a fit.
Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders are not everyone’s cup of English Breakfast Tea. When speech, especially speech with the bark on, becomes an invitation to death only the rowdy, the rambunctious and sometimes the unsavory are willing to challenge thugs and tyrants.
Once upon a time, such courage was widely admired in the West. In some quarters, it still is. When Mr. Wilders was denied entry into Britain one Englishman, Dan Hannan, a member of the European Parliament, expressed the sentiment of his disillusioned and anguished countrymen: “Freedom means the freedom to express any opinion, however eccentric, however offensive … whether our government is actuated by cowardice or authoritarianism, it’s equally ugly. We’re a meaner country than we were this morning.”
Just now the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which meets this week, are trying to decide whether to find “five or ten minutes” on the program for Mr. Wilders. They might ponder this Englishman’s words as helpful guidance.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.