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  • November 2018: Tolerance pitted against a ban on blasphemy

Between June and August 2018, the far-right politician Geert Wilders has been busy organizing a competition of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The competition was supposed to be held inside Wilders’ offices in the Dutch Parliament. The contest sparked a lot of protest among Muslims internationally, especially in Pakistan. Requests to close the Dutch embassy in Pakistan were followed by threats to boycott Dutch products and the cancellation of a Dutch trade mission to Pakistan. At the end of August, 10.000 Muslims engaged in a protest march towards the Pakistani capital Islamabad (“Muhammad cartoon contest in Netherlands sparks Pakistan protests”, The Guardian, 29 August 2018). At around the same time in Afghanistan, the Talibans released a call for violence against Dutch military stationed there. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a Pakistani was arrested for planning to murder Wilders (“Far-right Dutch MP cancels Muhammad cartoon competition”, The Guardian, 30 August 2018). It was only at this point that Wilders announced he would cancel the competition for reasons of public safety (“Geert Wilders cancels Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest”, Al Jazeera, 30 August 2018).

In his official reaction, the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte called the cartoon competition ‘disrespectful’. However, he also defended the right of Wilders to hold it, on grounds of the freedom of expression.

The value of freedom of expression is closely related to the value of tolerance. Tolerance in the Netherlands dates back to 1960 and has since then been central to the way Dutch people perceive themselves (Versteeg, P. G. A., “The discovery of Dutch identity. A critical exploration”, Dutch Reformed Theological Journal, 53-2, 2012, 59-66). The value of tolerance was redefined when the Dutch political climate changed after 9/11. People felt afraid that Muslims would abuse Dutch tolerance. This led to liberals re-embedding tolerance in an attitude of inclusion of differences, while populists excluded non-tolerant people from the group to whom tolerance should be provided (Versteeg, 2012). This second line was the one Geert Wilders followed when he asked for tolerance under the guise of the right to free speech for his cartoon contest, while his attitude could be deemed disrespectful (and non-tolerant) of the Muslim rule that the prophet Muhammad should not be depicted. The reaction of prime minister Rutte, thus, reflects the centrality of tolerance in the Dutch national identity, while the provocation of Wilders reflects the way the meaning of tolerance in the Dutch national identity has changed post 9/11.

Furthermore, an important issue at play was that blasphemy is not forbidden in the Netherlands, contrary to the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan (A. E. Theodorou, “Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?”, Pew Research Center, 29 July 2016). As laws reflect values, this could explain why the protests in Pakistan and Afghanistan gained a lot more attention than those in the Netherlands. The Muslim population in the Netherlands may have adapted to a Dutch context, where sometimes the value of tolerance takes precedence over the value of freedom of religion.

D 13 November 2018    ACéline Garnier

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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