Monday saw the start of Geert Wilders’ trial for inciting racial hatred following his promise at a 2014 rally in The Hague to reduce the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands. Wilders is the leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, which has been prominent in Dutch politics since the mid-2000s and known for its extreme Islamophobic position. Early this year, polls suggested that the PVV could win as much as 26% of the vote in the March 2017 general election. While more recent polls suggest the party’s support may have diminished, it still appears to have bounced back from its 2012 slump and remains in a position to win the election.
As is often the case with far-right parties, the trial could either be a setback for the party or, more likely, a blessing in disguise, as the party will benefit from extensive media coverage reinforcing its self-appointed position as anti-elite. What is clear is that Wilders has already attempted to use it to his own advantage, declaring he would not attend what he considered ‘a political trial’, a ‘travesty’ and an attack on free speech. In a typical far-right manoeuvre, a victimised Wilders declared that “if speaking about this is punishable, then the Netherlands is no longer a free democracy but a dictatorship”.
Free speech has always been a potent excuse on the far right to justify racist generalisations. Jean-Marie Le Pen was famous for defending his inflammatory and racist politics by stating that he was simply saying out loud what everybody else thought, claiming that he spoke on behalf of a conveniently ‘silent majority’. However, until recently, the political capital gained using this type of argument remained limited as their racist quality was considered unacceptable, both legally and politically. This is what the judges, who decided that Wilders’ trial would proceed, referred to when they stated that politicians ‘are granted broad freedoms of expression because of their official position’ and that this is precisely why they ‘have an important role in avoiding feeding intolerance by making this kind of public statement’.
This position, supported by hate speech laws in place in countries such as the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, has come under fire as Islamophobic discourse has become increasingly mainstream, particularly after recent terrorist attacks across Europe. The use of free speech, a concept generally thought of as progressive, has been key in legitimising the return of racism to the forefront of politics across the west. In societies where citizens have become increasingly distrustful of their political parties, politicians and polemicists in the media have been allowed to gain disproportionate visibility by claiming to break the taboos put in place by the intelligentsia and the establishment. Most commonly, these public actors have denounced the inability to criticise Islam, even though the stereotypical critique of this religion and anyone loosely associated with it has been front page material for a long time now.
France has been a particularly active setting in the mainstreaming of Islamophobia. As early as 1985, the Figaro Magazine showed a veiled Marianne on its front page and asked whether ‘we would still be French in thirty years’ (n.b. The answer is ‘yes’).
Yet the hypocritical claim to free speech by Islamophobes has become ever more obvious in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, which served as an excuse to justify racist attacks on Islam. Indeed, it is striking that a few weeks before Islamophobes used the tragic event to claim it was impossible to talk about Islam, the best-seller in France was a plainly anti-Islam book written by prominent journalist and writer Eric Zemmour, whose presence in the French media has been ubiquitous and whose books are published by mainstream publishers.
This is particularly revealing of the contradictions at the heart of the free speech debate in Europe, and the usually racist aims behind such claims. By all accounts, defenders of free speech against Islam have benefited from disproportionate coverage in recent years, and been allowed to promote across much of the mainstream media stereotypes about a very diverse community whose voice is very rarely heard and whose access to public discourse is limited by systemic discrimination.
While free speech could indeed be a concept worth defending, the debate currently taking place in Europe is deeply flawed and dangerous as it willingly ignores the power differential in our access to public discourse and our capacity as individuals to impact on the hegemonic narrative. If equal access to the media and politics was indeed a given in our societies, free speech could be an emancipatory avenue for debate and discussion. Yet as access is currently utterly unequal, and as much of our media and politicians offer a profoundly negative and simplistic vision of Islam, but also immigration (real or perceived), without those targeted being offered a proportional right of response, the result is that those complaining the most about the suppression of their speech have in fact the loudest voice in our deeply cynical public arena.
It is in this context that mainstream politics and media have failed to counter-balance the onslaught of reactionary politics, and in fact played a key part in reinforcing our perception that immigration (and Islam, as if both were necessarily linked) is the main concern for citizens, while polls suggest that it may in fact be a proxy based on clear misperceptions. In this context, whatever the result, Wilders’ trial is set to strengthen the position of the far right and further propagate exclusivist discourse across Europe. Enthused by the partial claims that Brexit was an anti-immigration plebiscite, parties such as the Front National in France and the Alternative for Germany are set to reap the benefits in next year’s elections as the mainstream appears unwilling to counteract their exclusionary narrative, instead willingly embracing it.
Published in Newsweek on 2/11/2016