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Pretentiousness Kills

Lessons from the corrupt prosecution of Geert Wilders

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Since January, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Beach Boy-haired founder and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), has been on trial in Amsterdam for inciting hatred against Muslims and Holland’s recent Moroccan immigrants, for inciting discrimination against Muslims, and for insulting Muslims. Wilders’s alleged offenses include directing a short film, Fitna, that criticizes the Koran as an incitement to violence and writing a letter to the editor that called for the banning of the Koran—a “fascist book,” in Wilders’s opinion. 

Pretentiousness Kills

Geert Wilders in court

REUTERS / Robin van Lonkhuijsen

The wording of the law is clear. It targets anyone who “publicly, verbally or in writing or image, deliberately expresses himself in any way insulting of a group of people because of their race, their religion, or belief.” Before Wilders’s indictment almost a year ago, Dutch politicians and lawyers, liberals and conservatives alike, assured the public that the law could only be used against those who were haranguing mobs bent on riot, and against publishers of Mein Kampf (banned in Holland) and other hate speech. But an Amsterdam judge named Tom Schalken overruled the public prosecutors in his district who recommended that the case against Wilders (urged on by extreme-left politicians) be dropped.

For obvious reasons, Wilders’s trial has attracted worldwide attention. It’s not just that, since the indictment, the PVV’s stunning success in the June general election made it the third largest party in Holland. The charges against Wilders raise grave human rights, legal, political, and moral issues. Have Holland’s laws and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights put fears of blasphemy ahead of any concern with the right of free speech? And have the Dutch allowed the definition of blasphemy and insult to be controlled by the feelings of a particular group of citizens—Muslims—because of favoritism or fear of violence? A Dutch professor of human rights created a furor when he suggested that Wilders is being persecuted just as dissidents are persecuted in China and Cuba.

The trial has been suspended since October 22, when an appellate court dismissed the panel of judges led by Judge Schalken and ordered a new trial, which may resume shortly, as three new judges were appointed November 11. What happened to the first panel of judges? Their dismissal had surprisingly little to do with the profound issues of human rights and political freedom I mention—and about which I have nothing new to say here. It happened because an expert witness, a retired professor of Arabic and Islamic thought named J. J. G. Jansen, was affronted by a load of post-structuralist cant.

But Professor Jansen’s indignation may be just as important as the weighty issues touched on in the prosecution of Wilders. It raises the question of whether our best and brightest are still intellectually equipped even to think about, much less decide intelligently, the great questions of law, freedom, and human rights. What is really troubling, and fascinating, about the Wilders prosecution is how much it depends on the intellectual weapons of “postmodernism,” deployed by a highly educated Dutch elite. In Amsterdam’s battlefield of ideas, the guns of Adorno, Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida, Edward Said, and their countless academic popularizers have been turned against civil rights and human freedom. Learned pretentiousness has consequences.


J. J. G. Jansen, known as Hans Jansen in Holland, retired from the University of Utrecht after a distinguished and rather dashing academic career, including many years spent living and researching in Cairo. Jansen testified at the Wilders trial in May. He had been called as a recognized expert in Arabic and the modern interpretation of the Koran (about which he has published several books and numerous articles since 1972) to tell the court about what the Koran actually has to say on the subject of jihad and other disagreeable matters. Jansen believes that he was asked to testify because the court “could not imagine that the things Geert Wilders claimed were in the Koran were actually in the Koran.”

On October 20, Jansen dropped the bomb that derailed the trial. In a post at the small but well-regarded blog HoeiBoei, he revealed that a few days before his May testimony, Judge Schalken had engineered a surprise meeting between them at a dinner party, where the judge tried blatantly to influence his testimony. Schalken’s intentions seemed obvious, even clumsy. He kept turning the subject of conversation to the trial, tried to convince Jansen that the charges against Wilders were justified, and attempted to elicit Jansen’s sympathy and even his cooperation with the prosecution (Dutch trials are always presided over by a panel of judges, but Schalken’s role in forcing the case to trial was unusual). 

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