The Amsterdam trial has resumed for Dutch politician Geert Wilders on charges of inciting hatred against Muslims. He rejects violence and denies that his behavior provokes it. "I just want a debate," Wilders says. It is true that his acts are nonviolent, but his speech is hateful and fodder for cynical self-fulfilling prophesy. Less than 1 percent of the world's Muslims are practitioners of salafist jihadism, but this means millions of short-fused personalities are out there, some of whom would rather kill and be killed than tolerate Wilders' brutal humiliation.
The Dutchman's assessment of Islam comes from the same school as that of Americans Glenn Beck, Pamela Geller, Brigitte Gabriel and Robert Spencer. It doesn't matter that his opinions about Islam are without disciplined academic qualifications. It doesn't matter that his shallow ideas are obvious and deliberate exaggerations for effect. In western democracies he is entitled to speak his mind as often as he wants as long as he does not call for violence.
What does he say that could be provocative? For one, Wilders describes Islam as "fascist" and compares the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf. In 2007 he published an opinion piece in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant claiming the Quran should be outlawed in the Netherlands. As a second item, Wilders has called Muhammad "the devil." As a third, there is his film, Fitna, that explores Quranic inspired motivations for terrorism, Islamic universalism and Islam in the Netherlands. As a fourth, there are the press conferences where Wilders called the prophet Muhammad a "barbarian, a mass murderer and a pedophile." And finally, there is his name calling, such as when he called Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan a "total freak."
No matter what he says, the practical consequences of his speech seem to be of little concern to his fans and supporters see him as a hero and free speech warrior. After all, he wants nothing more than "legitimate political debate." Fair enough. But we know from rhetoric training that to have an intelligent debate we need a clear statement of the problem, a proposition or a resolution. What is the proposition of Wilders' debate?
Is it this? Resolved: further immigration into European nations must be stopped from Muslim cultures. Or this? Resolved: public policies must be put into place that will keep Europe's Muslim citizens second-class citizens unless they behave like westerners. Or this? Resolved: a climate of fear, contempt and loathing is a necessary and appropriate response to the undeniable fact Muslims -- all 1.9 billion -- consciously want a universal Islamic state under the administration of "sharia law."
Like another Dutch politician, ethnic Somali Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Geert Wilders does not acknowledge the profound reform movement that is under way in contemporary Islam. He also refuses to accept the idea that one can be a faithful Muslim and still support the separation of state and church.
Wilders and others who hate Islam cannot be silenced nor should they be. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes understood this when he wrote the dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States (1919) that eventually formed the basis for modern understanding of the First Amendment, the law that protects people who say hateful things about minority groups even if the intention is to cause their members distress and to generate contempt and loathing.
But this does not have to be the last word. Geert Wilders' hate speech provides us with an opportunity to apply the harm test, a utilitarian ethical approach that seeks to minimize harm and maximize benefit. This involves a series of questions. Number one is to ask: Who will be affected by the action? Number two: What impact will the action have on these people? Number three: Is the impact harmful or beneficial?
Mr. Wilders, please answer three questions: Does your hate speech produce physical or mental suffering or does it increase safety and quality of life? Have you considered the available alternatives and compared them in terms of a benefit to harm ratio? Which alternative produces the best ratio?
No one is questioning Wilders' right to say the things he does. The issue is what good can come of it?
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