Freedom of expression rediscovered
"I totally disapprove of what you are saying, but I would give my life for your right to say it." That's how Voltaire's point of view of 1770 was summarised in 1906 by English author Evelyn Beatrice Hall. The French philosopher's principle could be a useful motto for a new campaign announced by the Dutch conservative VVD party.
The party, currently in opposition, prides itself on its roots in the liberal movement of the mid-19th century, but it is nowadays better known as a free-market champion. When in government, it promoted liberalisation of monopolist markets, free competition and individual consumers' freedom of choice.
VVD leader Marc Rutte has adopted freedom of expression as one of his key issues. His party's liberal thunder has been stolen by the likes of Geert Wilders and the late Theo van Gogh, who referred to freedom of expression as the principle that allowed them to express highly critical opinions of radical islam. Wilders' Freedom Party is taking the principle one step further by applying it only to themselves; they want to deny Muslims the right to express some of their religious views.
In an attempt to regain some ground, the conservative VVD has announced proposals to allow almost anything to be said in public. Freedom of expression has been under threat at least since islam critic and film director Theo van Gogh was murdered in 2004.
The then Justice Minister, Piet Hein Donner, suggested that the dormant blasphemy article in the law should be reactivated, which would have made considerable inroads on people's freedom to criticise religion. Blasphemy is still officially illegal according to article 147 of the Dutch penal code, but the article is seldom invoked.
A commentator in De Pers daily reminds his readers that VVD would have to distance itself from earlier positions involving conflicts between religion and freedom of expression. In 2008 the party wanted to ban a drawing depicting Anne Frank, the Jewish girl killed in a Nazi concentration camp, shown wearing a Palestinian scarf.
The picture was part of a project by Amsterdam street artist "T", who imagined what a reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians would look like. VVD also made suggestions similar to those of Geert Wilders, saying that mosques allowing radical imams to preach should be closed.
Bans on art works which may offend religious sensibilities are out, in the new VVD view. And so are calls to ban radical preachers. Anything goes, is the new VVD approach. It remains to be seen whether its electorate agrees.
Photo credit: Lulu Vision