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.)
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