Amsterdam's appeals court today ruled that the Dutch right wing MP Geert Wilders should be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred. The ruling relates to a 2008 film called Fitna that Wilders made which suggested that the Q'uran is essentially a manifesto for violence.
The film contains quotations from the Q'uran which are set against images of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and it compares Islam to Fascism and likens the Q'uran to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.
The problem with this decision is that it profoundly mistakes the criticism of ideas and beliefs with the criticism of people based on race or ethnicity.
Islam, like most religions, claims not to be associated with a particular race or ethnicity and indeed it is not. There are Islamic believers all around the world, in Africa, in the Middle east and throughout Asia. There are white western adherents of the Islamic religion. Racial or Ethnic identity is not an identifying feature of Islam.
On this count alone the decision by the Dutch appeals court seems entirely perverse and illogical.
Criticism of ideas and beliefs is part of the price we pay for having an open and developing society. There is a market place of ideas and all ideas are subject to robust and sometimes harsh scrutiny. Protecting Islam or any other religion, or indeed Atheism from such harsh debate makes no more sense that ruling that the ideas, beliefs and manifesto of a political party should be protected from harsh scrutiny.
It is in the process of such fierce debate that our society progresses. The problem in this society is that there are those who are prepared to subject others beliefs and actions to such harsh criticism but who want their own beliefs and actions protected.
Take Islam for example. It is not uncommon for Islamic preachers ( and even Christian preachers) to moralise harshly about matters such as abortion and sexual behaviour and attitudes. They may do this fiercely and harshly. Religious believers have accused those involved in abortion of murder. Islamic preachers have denounced what they see as the lax sexual standards in the West and have done so in the harshest language.
If criticism of Islam is tantamount to incitement to racial hatred then most surely so is such preaching.
But we should defend the right of people to say such things whether we agree with them or not. On the matter of belief and the conduct of our affairs we have a right of reply, as religious believers or non-believers.
There should be no protection against criticism of political beliefs and manifestos or of religious beliefs and creeds. There should be no protection against the harsh criticism of those who profess no religious belief.
Non of this is incitement to racial hatred because such beliefs systems are never exclusive to any race or ethnic group. People are free to change their beliefs or to argue in defense of them.
The test of incitement to hatred in this area needs to be much more serious and should in effect amount to a test of incitement to violence. The question should not be whether the actions in question caused people to hate the beliefs or actions that are being criticised. The question should if the actions in question cause people to hate and incite violence towards those who hold those beliefs.
On abortion for example, some Christians may wish to criticise abortion and the belief that abortion is right, in the harshest terms. They should be able to do so. However when they stray into inciting or encouraging acts of retribution, violence or discrimination against people who believe in abortion then this should be a matter which concerns the courts.
This same approach is appropriate whether the issue is gay marriage, the atheist belief that religions are harmful, or suggestions that right wing Christianity is a perverse and selfish belief system.
It is not fierce criticism that should concern the courts but the issue of whether such criticism is intended or has the effect of promoting violence to those who hold those beliefs.
Free speech is the double edged sword that we use to guard our liberty. It protects the rights of the religious, the non-religious, the right and the left to have their say and to argue for their cause. This is as it should be. All become equally open to debate and criticism. Closing down free speech can imperil us all.
The decision is therefore not only illogical but potentially drives a stake to the heart of the right to free speech. If the film incited violence then the prosecution should be on that basis - not on the spurious basis of racial hatred. Let us hope this Dutch example is not repeated elsewhere.