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  • 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.

Céline Garnier
  • August 2017

An article from Sophie Bijsterveld shows that religion remains an influential force in our time despite the prophecy of secularization theory which argued that religion would fade away. In the context of migration, this expectation hardly came through, even in Europe where secularization is deeply rooted, because the presence of Muslim and other faith groups poses many challenges. This article examines the trajectory of state-religion relations in the Netherlands and looks at its impact on Muslims in this country. Traditionally, the state’s position has been marked by an open and friendly attitude towards religion. In recent years, however, debates on religion in the public, political, and academic domains have taken a sharper edge, and the questions that now arise with regard to religion in the public domain have become more controversial. Three elements of this new dynamic are mentioned : (1) the renewed attention to the “values” side of religion, especially in cases where these values do not easily mesh with the dominant values in Dutch society, (2) rising concerns on the balance between pluralism and social cohesion, and (3) new discussions on the functioning of fundamental rights in general and of freedom of religion in particular.

Sophie van Bijsterveld (2015), "Religion and Law in the Netherlands", Insight Turkey, 17-1, p. 121-141.

Sipco Vellenga
  • 2012 : Draft regulation on ritual slaughter

In early October 2012, the Dutch Agriculture Minister, Henk Bleker, signed a draft regulation governing the use of ritual slaughter in the Netherlands. The decree provides for animals to be knocked out 40 seconds after having their throat slit and in particular defines the size of knife to be used. This text follows several months of discussion and attempts at regulation and ought to be submitted to the Council of Ministers by the end of the year.

In 2011, a large majority of the lower chamber of the Dutch Parliament had passed a law introduced by the Party for the Rights of Animals (PvdD), which was seeking a total ban on ritual slaughter in the Netherlands.

The senate, however, rejected this text in late 2011, arguing that the law violated the right to religious freedom. The government therefore sought a compromise between the different parties and a preliminary agreement ahead of the decree was signed in June 2012 between organizations representing Jewish (NIK) and Muslim (CMO) communities and the Association of Abattoirs and Meat Producers (VSV).

For further information, see the text of the agreement of 5 June 2012 (Convenant onbedwelmd slachten volgens religieuze riten, in Dutch)

D 13 janvier 2017    ACéline Garnier ASipco Vellenga

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