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The government is obsessed with appeasing Muslims. When it couldn’t get Geert Wilders, it went for Gregorius Nekschot. According to prominent journalists, the present cabinet is the greatest threat to the Dutch legal system since World War II
“Don’t you know that all human ills and mean-spiritedness and cowardice arise not from death, but from fear of death? Against this fortify yourself. Direct all your discourses, readings and exercises thereto. And then you will find that by this alone are men made free.”
Epictetus (55-135 AC, former slave and favourite Stoic of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius)
Why and when does a people that considers itself free, give in to tyranny? And if subdued, may it resist and fight itself free again? These questions seem trite, but only because they belong to the core of every political, legal or religious debate that has gone on even before the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, when, at the Blood River in Boeotia, the last Thebes and Athenian army of free hoplites, the Sacred Band, grimly fought the subjugating Macedonian phalanx of king Philip and his son, Alexander the Great until the last hoplite perished. The Philippics of Demosthenes, the Athenian critic of Philip’s and Alexander’s enslaving ambitions, echoed through Roman’s Republic and beyond. What is freedom? What is tyranny? What is freedom’s prize? Why does tyranny always win? If not foreign and brute oppression, Machiavelli wrote, what then causes tyranny, always and inevitably, to take over from within: religious terror, corruption, cowardice, lack of character and virtue, a coup d’etat, fear? Can we spot the Machiavellian Moment, strengthen virtue, and escape the proven track record of history and resist the Brits whatever it takes, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin asked their fellow American colonists, and set our future generations free?
Now, in 2008, the Dutch who very much like to think themselves as very free, may rightly wonder whether the Machiavellian Moment is knocking on their doors. Surely on Tuesday night, the 15th of May, somewhere in Amsterdam, somebody hammered on the door of Gregorius Nekschot, “a pale and polite little fellow” (Elsevier, 6 June 2008). A force of 10 heavily armed policemen stormed up the stairs, yelling “OPENMAKEN”, then, without waiting for him to open his door, rammed it in, lifted him from his bed, handcuffed him, dragged him down and hurled him into the armoured van. They also took his computer, his mobile phone, his books, letters, cd’s, dvd’s, and shoes (?). Nekschot (an alias which means “shot in the back of the head” – the favourite way of the Nazis to execute members of the Dutch resistance – was thrown into a prison that contained a concrete platform to sleep on (no blankets) and a hole in the ground to piss in. He was interrogated twice and imprisoned for 33 hours. Nekschot was not wanted for murder: he was accused of drawing and publishing cartoons “of an extremist nature, expressly towards Islam”. During the second interrogation he was told that his cartoons “were even worse that the Danish ones,” and that they now knew his identity “and would publish it, if he would not cooperate” (HP/De Tijd, 23 May 2008, page 27). In an interview with journalist Thieu Vaessen of the highly respected journal HP/De Tijd, Nekschot states that he is seriously afraid that the police will substantiate their threat and that, for his own safety, he has to censor himself (HP/De Tijd, 23 May 2008, page 27-29; the cartoons of Nekschot are on YouTube).
The outcry of disbelief in the Dutch Parliament on the 16th of May over the cartoonist’s violent arrest (the first of its kind since the Nazi occupation), mainly came from the traditional Liberal Party of Mark Rutte and the new kid on the block, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, and it merely seemed to strengthen the Minister of Justice, the devout Catholic Ernst Hirsch Ballin from the Christian Democratic Party, in his decision: “Mr. Nekschot was urgently wanted since he published his Sickening Jokes in 2005. Three years ago he has been accused of contemptuous blasphemy, racism and discrimination. He is finally found and will now be prosecuted” (Elsevier, 16 June 2008). Three years to find a publishing cartoonist is, however, a very long time – especially when the person lives and works in downtown Amsterdam and answers his e-mail promptly. Also, although Nekschot uses an alias, he is a renowned figure and was very much admired by the Theo van Gogh – the pestilence of everything proper. During the weeks after his arrest it became clear that there was something extremely fishy about Hirsch Ballin’s explanation.
Indeed, already three years ago Paul Velleman, Amsterdam Officer of Justice, called for Nekschot’s arrest after the highly orthodox imam Abdul Jabber van de Ven (a converted Dutch farmer from the province of Groningen) had proffered charges against Nekschot. Velleman instructed the National Expert Centre on Discrimination, of which he is also the director, to screen Nekschot and follow his movements. This screening was later backed up and intensified by the National Centre on Problematic Cartoonists. No direct action was taken, however, because the previous Minister of Justice, Piet-Hein Donner and his colleague Johan Remkes, Minister of Internal Affairs (Liberal Party) thought the whole thing “quite quaint” and didn’t want to have anything to do with it (De Pers, 22 May 2008).
When the new Cabinet took office last Summer, no action was taken, either. But things changed overnight for Hirsch Ballin, a very close friend of Prime Minister Balkenende (a devout Protestant) after they did lost in Parliament the direct confrontation with Geert Wilders about Fitna. The Movie. Hirsch Ballin and Balkenende were not able to clarify why they had attempted to censor Wilders before the making and showing of his movie. They were also unable to show why smearing Wilders’ reputation internationally would help Dutch interests. Four days after the vehement debate, the police dragged Nekschot from his bed. According to Nekschot, the timing is suspicious:
“They have been working on my file for a very long time. It took them three years to take action. Perhaps it was some sort of back up file, ready to use if other dossiers exploded.”
Elsevier: “You mean: when the charges against Geert Wilders didn’t work?”
“Yes, exactly. Probably the case against Wilders has become too difficult for the Department of Justice. Why else would my dossier suddenly become so urgent? They have followed me for three years, why now, why this way ... they’re toying with my safety!”(Elsevier, 24 June 2008).
But, of course, there’s more to it. Hirsch Ballin and Balkenende are the self-proclaimed architects of the New Netherlands. From the elections in 2002 onwards (actually, from the moment that Pim Fortuyn, the brilliant challenger of the Dutch political system, was coincidentally murdered), Balkenende has called for “the resurrection of our traditional morals, in which applied respect for religion and proper behaviour are the core elements”. Balkenende’s cry for strictness, control and censorship was even spurred on by the murder on Theo van Gogh in 2004. A week after Van Gogh was butchered the Prime Minister, inspired by his party member Hirsch Ballin, pressed his then Minister of Justice, Donner, to re-enact the archaic law on “slanderous blasphemy”, which had not been applied since the late 1960's. Balkenende did this to help the orthodox Islamic and orthodox Christian population in the Netherlands to defend their religion in court against critics such as Van Gogh. In 2004 Parliament didn’t back Balkenende. Yet in 2008 Hirsch Ballin, a peevish hawk wearing velvet gloves, tried again. Backed by the new Cabinet consisting of Christian Democrats (CDA), Christian Unionists (CU) and Social Democrats (PvdA) he proposed on the 6th of May (the same date Fortuyn was shot) even to widen the application of the law on “slanderous blasphemy” and to include “other ideologies, holy books and core values”; slanderous blasphemy would not only entail “God” but also “the believers themselves” (Elsevier, 24 May 2008; De Volkskrant, 15 June 2008). In short, in future Wilders will be prone to prosecution, whether he merely criticizes the Islamic ideology or the individual believers.
According to Hirsch Ballin, the Netherlands was a different country in the 1970's: “When the diversity in the philosophies of life was less and the population was more uniform.” Clearly “Islam has taken root and hence the law has to change to protect the sensitivities of the Islamic populace” (Elsevier, 24 June 2008). In view of the agenda of Balkenende and Hirsch Ballin to reform the Netherlands to their liking, this position hands them the perfect pretext to tighten the leash. Balkenende’s and Hirsch Ballin’s vigorous attempts to re-enact the law on “slanderous blasphemy” shows that to them freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press have to give way to the protection of religious sensibilities. Small wonder that Hirsch Ballin is strongly supported by the Christian Unionists – a party of Providential Calvinists who sternly oppose any modernity and religious mockery and look upon Islamists as adherents to a high-strung morality – like the one they pretend to profess. Of course, the social democrat Wouter Bos, Minister of Finance, stated on Friday the 9th of May that this law would not pass if it were up to him. But the new reality was already put in effect. Less than two working days later, on Tuesday the 13th of May, Gregorius Nekschot was dragged from his bed. By contrast, in Dutch mosques extremist imams are still free to preach whatever they want –using the pretext of religion.
During his incarceration and the days after, Gregorius Nekschot might have expected some support from the Social Democrat Party, which is after all the leading party in Amsterdam. Moreover, the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, is a leading Social Democrat and also head of the police. Nekschot could not have been more wrong. In the Cabinet, the Parliament and the city not one Social Democratic politician lifted a finger. This was so conspicuous and painful to Karin Content Schaapman, rising star of the party and member of the Amsterdam town council, that she resigned and left the party. Thus far she has been, however, the only one. During the annually PvdA congress on the14th of June 2008 the party leader, Wouter Bos, also Minister of Finance, re-emphasized their goal: “Our litmus test of credibility is our successful program of integration” (De Volkskrant 16 June 2008). Nekschot’s curbing is not inconvenient for the Social Democrat Party. “I am anti-ideology,” Nekschot states, “that is my main motive. I don’t care whether the ideology is political or religious. I think that any form of ideology leads to tyranny. ... In regard to my immediate future – if any –from now on I will hand over my cartoons to the humour police of the Department of Justice to have them checked. That will stop this nonsense. … Prime Minister Balkenende aims to control and appease things, which implies getting rid off any nuisances. First he went for Wilders and now for me” (HP/De Tijd, 23 May 2008).
To the Social Democrats cartoonists such as Nekschot have become a pestilence. Times have changed since the 1970's, when the PvdA (Social Democrats) with 54 seats was leading in Parliament, which counts a total of 150 seats. Back then the social democrat voters were blue-collar workers and intellectual middle class. All were Dutch born and raised and were optimistic believers in the permissive society and the multi-cultural dream. Today the PvdA hovers between 13 and 33 seats and is speedily losing its prominent place in society at large (Elsevier, 8 June 2008). Sure, many voters are still Dutch born and raised, socially correct, and staunch adherents of the dogma of cultural relativism. But the real backbone of the Social Democrats is now formed by the nearly one million voters from Islamic background, strongly linked to their countries of origin such as Morocco and Turkey, and fighting for their own dreams. It is a demographic fact that in the major four cities, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, in ten years from now 70 pct. of the populace will be of Moroccan and Turkish heritage. To head off the steadily growing new Socialist Party of neo-Maoists Agnes Kant and Jan Marijnissen, its those future votes the PvdA wants to win and keep. The Social Democrats do not want to run the risk of alienating this powerful constituency by backing a mocker of Muhammed such as Nekschot.
Of course Hirsch Ballin came out with a statement that “the 33 hours of Nekschot’s imprisonment was a bit much” – but he will be prosecuted nevertheless (Elsevier, 29 May 2008). Clearly the die is cast. Balkenende and Hirsch Ballin are too well schooled in Machiavellian classics not to seize their moment: power perceived is power achieved –the number of incidents of active censorship in recent weeks is staggering. Cartoonists are afraid to publish, journalists are afraid to publish unsettling facts, paintings of nudes are removed from city halls after radical muslims have complained, and cutting edge scientific and medical research is under attack (Elsevier, 17 May 2008, 8 June 2008). According to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Mark Rutte (Liberal Party), Balkenende and Hirsch Ballin are “systematically campaigning against the freedom of speech ... frivolously they’re abusing state resources and state power to censor people.” (Elsevier, 29 June 2008). The Liberal Party, trying hard to keep Wilders’ Party for Freedom down in the polls, even opened up in their quarters in Parliament a safe house for censored works: paintings, cartoons, films, essays.
Unsurprisingly, the “emergency” debate on “Nekschot” in Parliament on the 20th of May lead to nothing.
With the new road now opening up, rising stars in Dutch politics grab their opportunity. Ahmed Marcouch (PvdA), chairman of Amsterdam-West, advocates for the introduction of Islam into public schools, separation of boys and girls during school swimming, acceptance of headscarves and burkas, and the introduction of Creation next to Darwin. Until recently Marcouch was regarded a moderate just as Ahmed Aboutaleb (PvdA), Minister of Social Affairs. Aboutaleb had the nerve to call for the sacking of Amsterdam’s most extremist imam Fawaz Jneid – which, of course, never happened. Marcouch, however, “unmasked himself” the leading (and leftist) Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool writes, and proves to be “a wolf in sheep clothes” (Het Parool, 14 June 2008). Tofik Dibi, of the marginal Green Left party, stated in Parliament that Marcouch furthers segregation:
“To the list of all prejudices concerning muslims, Marcouch managed to add a new one: all muslims want, in fact, an education based on Islam and the clear line between public and private schools means nothing to us. The opposite is true. Most Islamic parents send their children to public schools and not to private, Islamic schools. And they do so for a reason: they do not want Islamic inspired education. They want good education and integration. The religious education is something which has to happen in the privacy of the household or the mosque and not in the public sphere” (Metro, 9 June 2008).
Frontrunners such as Dibi, however, seem more and more to be fighting a rearguard action. Because, even though people like Marcouch and Aboutaleb point to an internal struggle within the Dutch Moroccan and Dutch Turk intellectual elite on how to deal with “freedom” and their own cultural leanings, in the end they bend towards their, supposedly, orthodox voters. It is indicative that on the evening Fitna was released, Aboutaleb said live on the leading tv talkshow Pauw & Wiiteman that Wilders correctly confronts the Dutch muslims with their turning away from integration and notions such as freedom and equality: “My father,” Aboutaleb said, “moved with his family and me from Morocco to Holland to flee oppression and embraced the opportunities of freedom. Today I am very sorry to see that the Dutch Moroccans and the Dutch themselves are less free than 35 years ago. At least I know this: the Dutch Moroccans did this to themselves.” It was a heartfelt slip of the tongue, which the leaders of the PvdA did not appreciate. Hence, Aboutaleb, a political careerist, didn’t back his observation during the debates on Wilders and Nekschot. In fact, during a current mission to Morocco, Aboutaleb was praised by the Moroccan government and press for “how well he represents our country in another country”(De Volkskrant, 10 June 2008). With an intellectual elite that is still conspicuously struggling with even its own loyalty and integration, the regular Dutch Moroccan or Turk, who pays taxes, has a mortgage, wants good education, goes for a stroll in the park, is left in the dark; and has to witness that currently his cultural context in Holland is more traditional than the one in Casablanca or Istanbul.
Today’s road to tyranny is, however, not organised by the total of the four million newcomers (offspring and former colonies included), which the Dutch have sheltered since the mid-seventies. The struggle of the majority of Dutch Moroccans and Dutch Turks can be viewed as an emancipation process, awkward, ugly, and confrontational, but they have the right to profile themselves. Moreover, at a very local level some positive initiatives are undertaken. The motives of the PvdA aren’t totally Machiavellian either: most of the social democrats are convinced that cultural relativism and multi-culturalism are the only options for a bright future. According to Lilianne Ploumen, Chair of the PvdA, “Aboutaleb and Marcouch are the hope for the Netherlands. They are the Obamas of the PvdA” (HP/De Tijd, 13 June 2008).
Looking for an explanation for Balkenende’s and Hirsch Ballin’s behaviour, the eminent Dutch reporter Bart de Koning of the high brow journal HP/De Tijd states that which triggers the two is the fear of running risks:
“Ever since 9/11 and our actions in Afghanistan our society, and Balkenende expressly, are obsessed with risk prevention. Reality is no longer in charge, but the fear that something might go wrong is. The content of Fitna did not matter, but the risk of attacks did. And the same goes for the story of Gregorius Nekschot. … Risk and censorship are now part and parcel of the policies of Balkenende’s Cabinet. Arie Slob, chairman of the Christian Unionists stated last week in De Volkskrant that a Charter on Responsible Citizenship is needed, in which the citizen obligates himself “not to abuse his freedom of speech”. Clearly this is a euphemism for self-censorship. The Cabinet is even more outspoken and will rephrase the law to allow prior censorship. … The Government wants the power to act when “the insult will probably will have consequences for the public sphere”. The arrest of Nekschot shows that this law has in fact is already been put into effect” (HP/De Tijd, 23/05/08).”
As a reaction to the arrest of cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot, most leading Dutch papers and periodicals have come to the conclusion that Dutch freedom is under deliberate attack, not by Geert Wilders who they have characterised as the new Hitler like they depicted Fortuyn, but by the present Cabinet and its two key members Balkenende and Hirsch Ballin. The prominent journalists Roelof Bouwman and Mark Merks concluded that Nekschot’s arrest had to do with “redirected aggression”. Wilders had won the debate in Parliament, his movie Fitna could not be censored, the muslims had to be appeased, hence Nekschot’s arrest. “What does it matter?” Bouwman and Merks asked. “A lot,” they answered. “In a state ruled by law, police and justice cannot be abused to support a Cabinet in its mental and/or multicultural wet dreams. Clearly, this Cabinet with orthodox Christians and sullen Socialists is most unpopular, but worse: it is the greatest threat to the Dutch legal system since World War II” (HP/De Tijd, 13/06/08).
The consequences of Dutch opportunism have been very deadly, indeed. Today, Gregorius Nekschot has been blackmailed to give in, which he did. So far Geert Wilders stands firm in the face of physical threats.
This article is an edited version of the paper 'Dutch Freedom Goes Dutch Comfort, Again', by Arthur Legger, July 2008. Arthur Legger lives and works in Amsterdam and is a free critic – for as long as it lasts