Blasphemy law could be scrapped
A majority in the Dutch parliament, led by the ruling Labour Party, wants to scrap a law which fines or even imprisons people who commit blasphemy. But although the law isn't used anymore, even debating whether or not to scrap it is sensitive. The Christian parties in Dutch politics have always argued to keep it on the books. By political editor John Tyler
Now, tension is high in anticipation of far right Dutch MP Geert Wilders' film, which is expected to be considered blasphemous by most Muslims.
And although there's a majority for scrapping the law, government is not asked to get rid of it immediately.
The Netherlands is known as a permissive country. Prostitution is legal, people of the same sex can get married. But if you take the lord's name in vain, you risk a fine, or imprisonment. A law forbidding blasphemy is still on the books. Now parliament wants to change that.
Why has the ruling Labour Party chosen to go against the wishes of it's coalition partners in the government, and scrap a law which could be seen as protecting Muslims?
Labour Party MP Ton Heerts (photo on right) says there's never a good moment to scrap the law. He doesn't want to cause the Christian coalition parties any trouble, but, he says, "It's a law that's been on the books for years, and is never used. At some point, we should just get rid of it."
Indeed, the law against blasphemy has been called a dead letter. The last conviction under the law took place more than forty years ago, when a student newspaper got the maximum fine of 100 guilders (40 euros) for making fun of the New Testament. And in the infamous "donkey" case in 1968, confrontational Dutch author Gerard van het Reve fantasized about sexual relations with God who had taken the form of a donkey. The author was prosecuted for blasphemy, but the court acquitted him.
Backers of the law argue that it can be resurrected. Kees van der Staaij is an MP from the strict Protestant party SGP. He says other laws declared passé have been successfully used, including the law against insulting royalty, and another law against insulting authority figures.
The current coalition government agreed as recently as October to leave the law as it is. Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Balin wants to tread carefully regarding the law against blasphemy. He says he doesnt want to dispose of a law that's meant to reinforce mutual respect without giving it further thought.
The last attempt to take the blasphemy law off the books was made in 2004. However, politicians felt the atmosphere was too tense in the wake of the murder of film maker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical.
Now, in the run-up to Geert Wilder's film about the Koran, some feel Muslims abroad will see the scrapping of the blasphemy law as confirmation of supposed Dutch islamophobia.
But the law has never been used to prosecute blasphemy against other religions. In fact, some legal experts wonder if it even applies to religions other than Christianity.
It remains to be seen if parliament will get its wish and gets the law taken off the books. In the Geert Wilders era, no one wants to be seen as encouraging blasphemy.
18 March 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands]