His supporters have hailed Geert Wilders' acquittal as a victory for free speech, while his many detractors have slammed the decision not to punish a man who described Islam as "fascist." The Dutch right-wing populist politician was cleared of inciting hatred against Muslims by a court in Amsterdam Thursday after the judge ruled that his comments -- which also included comparing the Koran to Hitler's "Mein Kampf" -- were "acceptable within the context of public debate."
In his verdict, leading judge Marcel van Oosten said that while Wilders' statements were indeed offensive to Muslims, they were also part of a legitimate political discussion. Wilders' claim that Islam is a violent religion and his demands for a ban on Muslim immigrants should be viewed in the context of the larger societal debate over immigration policies, the judge argued.
The verdict has sparked a re-examination of free speech in a multicultural Europe, with some asking just how far the basic democratic right to speak one's mind actually extends.
German commentators were deeply divided over the issue on Friday. While some argued Wilders should have been punished, others suggested that free speech trumps any discomfort with extreme opinions.
The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"To marginalize an entire group of citizens is blatant discrimination and should be punished -- even in the Netherlands. But the court in Amsterdam apparently does not have the will to rein in the popular right-wing populist whose party the current government tolerates. His remarks were justifiable in the political debate, it said. At the same time, it is hard to fathom why Wilders was acquitted of the charge of incitement to racial hatred. After all, even the judge admitted that Wilders' comments are often "hurtful" for Muslims and that his film "Fitna" promotes aggression against Islam.
"This ruling is a free pass for Wilders to continue with his agitation -- and a slap in the face for Muslims who live in the Netherlands, and all those who believe in an equitable and peaceful coexistence between immigrants and natives, Christians and Muslims. And not only because Wilders has not been convicted. The court has also exonerated him of any accusations of being responsible for racist or discriminatory views. Right-wing populism in the Netherlands has finally been legitimized."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"It would have been much worse … if the Amsterdam judge had banned the party leader's radical hostility towards Islam, which would have fueled the fear that in these times of 'political correctness,' everything about Islam is taboo."
"That the judiciary has referred the so-called Islam debate back to parliament is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Muslims can also now demonstrate their strength if they give the cold shoulder to the legal process and get involved in the political argument -- self-confidently and self-critically."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Anyone who calls the Koran a 'fascist book' and compares it to Hitler's 'Mein Kampf,' who says his country is waging a 'war' against Islam 'and we must defend ourselves' -- is undoubtedly sowing hatred. And not just against a religion, but also against those who belong to it. It would therefore certainly been reasonable to have convicted the man. The acquittal sends the wrong signal."
"The judges believed that Wilders does not have anything against Muslims per se, and that his remarks emerged in the wider dispute over the correct immigration policy and were therefore just barely tolerable. But freedom of expression is not absolute. It has its limits -- where basic rights are threatened, where religious freedom is in danger."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Geert Wilders is a dandy and an intellectual, the likes of which we are unfamiliar with in German political culture. When he says that Europe is threatened by a process of Islamization, it disrupts the conciliatory public discourse."
"But Wilders has little in common with the Le Pens or Haiders of Europe, who appeal to primitive instincts. He must, of course, be careful not get caught up in such murky waters. The resentment of society articulated by pundits like him must, however, be taken into account by politicians instead of merely shooting the messenger. Geert Wilders is egocentric, but he is not a racist. What he says, the judges argued, even if it sounds very harsh and callous, must be allowed to be expressed in a democracy and must be tolerated."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The acquittal of Geert Wilders is not a setback for Muslims in the Netherlands nor for an open society. It is simply a clear hint for his detractors. In the courtroom, they chose the wrong setting to confront Wilders and his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant ideas."
"Not only have opponents of the Dutch politician not helped their cause, they have actually damaged it ... Wilders has received a legal charter for his provocative political campaign."
"Of course the law must set limits where people's fundamental rights and freedoms are attacked. But as long as this does not happen -- as the judge has decided, despite some concerns -- an open society must tolerate controversial positions. The political debate is the proper remedy, not the legal one."