In January 2009 a Dutch court ordered Geert Wilders to be prosecuted for offending Muslims and inciting anti-Muslim hatred. The complaint was based not on slurs, as such, but on factual statements made by Wilders, in his film Fitna and in various public venues, about Islamic beliefs and about actions inspired by those beliefs. In June 2011, after a prolonged legal ordeal that cost Wilders greatly in time, money, and emotion, and that represented a disgrace to the tradition of Dutch liberty, he was finally acquitted.
In February of this year, the Islamic Students Association at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam invited Haitham al-Haddad, a British sharia scholar, to participate in a symposium, but when some of al-Haddad's sophisticated theological statements about Jews (the usual “pigs and dogs” business) and about other topics came to light, members of the Dutch Parliament spoke out against the invitation, a media storm erupted, and VU canceled its plans. Whereupon a venue in Amsterdam called De Balie, which sponsors debates, talks, plays, and sundry cultural and artistic events (and whose café is a good spot to grab a late-morning coffee), stepped in and offered al-Haddad their stage.
At the event that ensued, al-Haddad spelled out, and defended, many aspects of Islamic law, including the death penalty for apostates. Because of this specific statement about executing apostates, al-Haddad was reported to Dutch officials for having broken the same laws that Wilders had been put on trial for violating. The other day, however, judicial authorities announced their determination that al-Haddad had not committed any offense and would therefore not be prosecuted for his remarks. Why? Supposedly because he had placed conditions on the death penalty for apostates. I was curious to know exactly what he had said, so I searched for the debate on You Tube. Lucky me, there it was, all 76 minutes of it. I will recount it in some detail here because I think it provides a window on one or two bemusing aspects of the European mentality in our time.
As the event began, Yoeri Albrecht, director of De Balie and the evening's host, explained that he'd decided to invite al-Haddad because it's “important to discuss the position of Islam in the West.” He told the cleric that he was “very happy that you agreed” to come and wished him “a warm welcome.” Albrecht had invited two other men to join him and al-Haddad onstage. One was Kustaw Bessems, a journalist; the other was Tofik Dibi, a young Dutch-Moroccan Marxist, university student, and member of Parliament for the Green Left Party who has publicly protested against Wilders and who represents himself as an advocate for a modern, progressive Islam. Neither Wilders nor anyone else from his Freedom Party was asked to join the debate. Bessems noted early on that while he finds al-Haddad's views “despicable,” it was he who had personally taken the initiative to find an alternate venue after VU's cancellation, because he believes in free speech (as if free speech means that fanatics have an automatic right to a platform).
Dibi's questions for al-Haddad were a tad challenging, but his manner was respectful, even deferential. The imam, for his part, didn't beat around the bush. Dibi: “Do you have more right to speak about Islam than other Muslims?” Al-Haddad: “Yeah, of course.” Dibi: “Do you allow yourself to doubt?” Al-Haddad: “There are certain things in Islam that are clear. No one can doubt them.”
Albrecht, for his part, sounded almost astonished when, having finally grasped al-Haddad's key point, he said: “Outside of Islam, there is no truth?” Al-Haddad: “No.” Albrecht: “Could you understand that a lot of people would be afraid of this kind of thinking?” Al-Haddad: “There is something called truth. There is right and wrong.” When al-Haddad admitted that he supported stoning for crimes like adultery and apostasy, Albrecht exclaimed: “You can't be serious!” The host seemed to be genuinely gobsmacked. (Incidentally, the “conditions” al-Haddad had reportedly placed on the death penalty for apostates, and that had purportedly saved him from prosecution by the Dutch judiciary, were as follows: an apostate could not be executed until his case was handled in a Muslim country by a sharia judge.)
It emerged that earlier that day al-Haddad had refused to let a woman sit beside him on a TV show. Asked now about women's rights, al-Haddad insisted that men and women, being different, have different rights; that obliging women to wear headscarves is not an act of oppression any more than parking rules in Britain are; and that “women's rights” need to be viewed in context. A woman in the audience was given an opportunity to express her own shock at al-Haddad's views on women: “I am really amazed at the way you think!” For a while, Albrecht gave up his seat onstage to her. “Who gives you the right,” she asked al-Haddad, “where do you get the right, to discuss women's rights?”
I was shocked too. I was shocked that in the year 2012, these Dutch infidels – intellectual infidels – professed to be shocked, and indeed gave every indication of being sincerely shocked, when they heard a recognized Islamic authority spell out basic facts of Islamic belief. These are the same basic facts that Geert Wilders has been talking about for years. It was for daring to speak these facts – for, in effect, reporting on the same barbaric beliefs and practices that al-Haddad was now not only describing but defending – that Wilders had been hauled into court on charges of having insulted al-Haddad's faith. Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wilders – all of them had been reviled around the world as Islamophobes for stating these same facts. But on that evening at De Balie it was almost as if none of these critics of Islam had ever opened their mouths.
By the end of the evening, al-Haddad had made it absolutely clear that he supported the gradual implementation of sharia law in the West – starting with relatively innocuous-seeming stuff like divorce tribunals and Islamic finance, then moving bit by bit into ever more serious territory. One particularly depressing development was that after an hour or so of listening to al-Haddad, Dibi admitted that he had caught himself feeling that al-Haddad, being a scholar, must be right about Islam after all. I've often felt that a major reason why less observant, essentially secularized Muslims like Dibi are so hesitant to speak out against the likes of al-Haddad (aside from sheer terror) is that some small voice deep inside whispers to them that he's the real thing – the good Muslim, a man whose pious certitude, and unwavering devotion to the Prophet shame their own co-optation by infidel decadence.
It was at around this point that Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party entered the discussion – indirectly, to be sure. “Some people in Parliament,” said Dibi, “I don't want to name the party again, think that men like yourself are slowly colonizing the West – they're pretending to be nice, pretending to be intellectuals, but secretly they are trying to take over.” Al-Haddad asked Dibi if he had allowed himself to be brainwashed by such silliness. “No,” Dibi was quick to insist, “I don't believe that” – even though he had just spent over an hour listening to al-Haddad confirm these very warnings. Dibi's next question suggested that he was, indeed, after the evening's workout, a torn, confused, and, yes, cowed young man: “Are you slowly, step by step, trying to implement sharia as a scholar?” “Yes,” the scholar replied, “if the people request it.”
Certainly the audience at De Balie that evening was packed with sharia fans. They cheered al-Haddad's attacks on the West; they applauded his praise of Islamic law. Every outburst of boisterous support for the imam's ugly sentiments only reaffirmed things that Geert Wilders has been saying for years. But nobody at De Balie that evening – including Bessems, who from beginning to end made clear his utter hostility to al-Haddad's views – even wanted to mention Wilders's name.
Note: The author apologizes for misspelling Kustaw Bessems's name and for accepting indications online that he is connected to the Labor Party. The piece has been corrected accordingly.
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