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The Latest Dutch Film Debacle

Free speech versus freedom of religion.

12:00 AM, Mar 12, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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It is an ironic turn for the Netherlands, with its record of religious pluralism and assimilation dating from the seventeenth century. Historian John Marshall of Johns Hopkins University calls Dutch toleration "remarkable" and "unmatched" by other societies. Political and religious dissenters of every type--fleeing Catholic torture chambers in France, Anglican prisons in England, or Calvinist crackdowns in Switzerland--found sanctuary. Jews experienced greater freedom of worship in the Netherlands than in any other country on the continent. Two of Europe's greatest advocates for religious liberty, John Locke and Pierre Bayle, wrote their definitive works while in exile in Holland in the 1680s. Locke marveled at how Arminians, Baptists, Lutherans, Quakers, and others "quietly permit one another to choose their way to heaven."

All of this was possible because the Dutch republic, established after the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, defined its national identity in opposition to religious persecution. Political leaders came to believe that the best route to civic peace and economic growth was a hands-off approach to religious expression--as long as it did not threaten the public good. "The powers under whom we live permit all Christians to serve God according to the dictates of their conscience," wrote Jean Le Clerc, the Amsterdam theologian who first published Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. "We shall in some measure imitate the equity of the magistrates in reporting without prejudice the views of all Christian societies."

No wonder the Dutch, like many other nations in Europe, struggle with a raging identity crisis. Their magistrates are losing sight of the democratic principle of equity, that is, equal justice under the law. They mistake sectarian enclaves for religious pluralism. They accept a bloated and corrupt welfare state as social justice. They turn tolerance into anything-goes morality. In their secularism, they cannot distinguish between religious conviction and religious absolutism. "The main difference with America is that being religious is absolutely not mainstream," Van Dommelen says. "De facto, the standard is to be a nonbeliever."

The coalition government and others remain at odds over what do to about the Wilders film. The Christian Democrats favor a ban, while Labour defends freedom of expression. The prime minister warns of security problems and economic boycotts, and is looking for a legal way to stop its release. In January, a U.S. military task force in Afghanistan posted website commentary warning that the film could undercut local support for foreign troops (a post that was subsequently removed). Dutch forces in Afghanistan, where angry demonstrations have occurred, are reportedly bracing for the worst. As one soldier complained to a Dutch journalist: "As if we have nothing better to do."

Free speech is a touchstone of democratic societies, as is freedom of religion. Sometimes these rights clash, but a just state strives to uphold them both. It apparently doesn't occur to Dutch elites that when government takes sides in religious questions--under the banner of free speech--it undermines democratic freedom. When it attacks people on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion, it lights a match. The fiery result is called Fitna, and it's coming to a theater near you.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online. His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.