THE dark spectre of illiberalism is slowly poisoning Western liberal democracies. You won't hear about it from much of the left-liberal press. It is part of the problem and its silence only confirms that basic liberties integral to Western liberal democracies are under threat. That is why you may not have heard about the trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who is being prosecuted under hate laws in The Netherlands for his opinions about Islam. Agree or disagree with Wilders, this is the thundering march of the thought police. And don't for a moment imagine that Australia is immune from this menace to democracy.
In a trial that began last month, Wilders is being prosecuted for offending a "group of people", for incitement and discrimination against Muslims. The summons describes scenes from his film Fitna as reason enough to put the leader of the Freedom Party in prison for up to two years.
In a sign of how twisted our Western antennae have become, the violence incited by Fitna is not against Muslims. Instead the film shows footage of Muslims preaching violence against the West. Yet Wilders is on trial for his opinions.
That said, Wilders does have harsh things to say about Islam. He likens the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf and wants it banned. No doubt this is hurtful to Muslims. No doubt this offends them. It may even be hateful. But in June 2009 Dutch prosecutors declined to act against Wilders because "freedom of expression fulfils an essential role in public debate in a democratic society. That means offensive comments can be made in a political debate."
Flexing its activist arm, the Dutch appeals court decided to prosecute Wilders anyway. Make no mistake. This is a political trial.
Wilders's Freedom Party is presently the most popular political party in The Netherlands. In last year's elections for the European Parliament, it won 17 per cent of the vote, second only to the ruling Christian Democrats on 19.9 per cent.
Wilders, who has made no secret of his views about Islam, could well be the next prime minister if that popularity is maintained. In other words, the Dutch seem interested in having a debate about what Wilders has to say about Islam.
Alas, the Dutch political class is not interested. And it is downright eerie how it aims to shut down debate. By using hate laws to criminalise Wilders's views, it has effectively co-opted Islamic laws to prohibit criticism of Islam.
Criticism of Christianity is fair game. After all, when was the last hate law prosecution of a critic of Christianity? By contrast, Islam has special protective laws. The same happened in Canada when commentators Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant were hauled before anti-discrimination tribunals for expressing critical opinions about Islam. John Stuart Mill's defence of free speech has been buried. Muslim-style censorship now applies in the heart of Western liberal democracies.
The left-liberal press is not that interested in free speech either. Perhaps free speech does not matter to it. Or perhaps these kinds of prosecutions are now so commonplace, they don't warrant a headline. Either way, this spells the decay of Western liberal democracies.
In Australia, too, the thought police have been on the march. In January last year, 4BC Queensland radio broadcaster Michael Smith said he thought it dangerous to allow the burka in certain public places because it had been used as a disguise by criminals. He also said he thought the burka impedes vision in a car. Days later, a listener, Omar Hassan, wrote to 4BC and complained to the Australian Communications and Media Authority that Smith had breached the code by vilifying, inciting hatred and discriminating against Muslims.
Last year, ACMA tossed out the complaint. No matter. Hassan also lodged a complaint with Queensland's Anti-Discrimination Commission. And the ADC accepted the complaint.
Never mind that countries such as France and Denmark are having robust debates about banning the burka for all sorts of reasons. Here in Australia, Smith cannot raise his objections - not without his employer, Fairfax Radio, having to spend time and money defending his right to express his opinions. And the purveyors of acceptable thoughts at the ADC now require Smith to attend a three-hour "mediation" session with Hassan. Call it a hunch, but I'm guessing mediation won't satisfy Hassan. In his 15-page letter to 4BC, he described Australia as a "racist country . . . No. 1 on the world list for the violation of human rights". He said Fairfax radio is a "human zoo owned by . . . pigs and monkeys". He said of Smith - a former policeman - that "being a cop would write you off as a decent human being for life as you can never recover from that disease of being a cop, as once a cop, the dirt and filth stick to you forever and could never be removed".
And he had plenty to say about women in short skirts. He expressed his disgust at being "forced to look at the backside of a woman who bends over in front of me in supermarket to pick an item off a bottom shelf". It is a health hazard, he says. "Non-Muslim women do not use water to clean themselves when they go to the toilet." Thus, bending over in a supermarket could cause serious health risks, Hassan wrote, especially for little children who "because of their height, may have such [a] scene right in their face".
Instead of dismissing this barrage of invective from Hassan, the ADC has decided that Smith has a case to answer.
Have we gone mad? Even if you think Smith's call for banning the burka is offensive - and, by the way, plenty of people in Western countries don't - using the law as a sledgehammer to suppress even the most offensive opinions is wrong.
The chilling effect of these laws will cause far greater problems for Western democracies than the problems anti-discrimination laws try to address.
Shutting down public debates will only drive discussion underground where, away from the blowtorch of challenging views, they will fester and grow more extreme in private. And shutting down offensive debate at the request of loony objectors just encourages more thin-skinned outrage, with ever more outlandish claims to protection from free speech, and increasing censorship. If you really want to discredit bad ideas, the surest way is to expose them to free and full debate. Remember, too, that plenty of ideas that were once regarded as offensive by a group of puffed-up, moralising sophisticates have prevailed.
If these same arguments defending freedom of expression are not made each and every time someone is prosecuted for their opinions, the great danger is that these kinds of stifling prosecutions will be regarded as the norm in a society that has seemingly forgotten or forsaken its values.
this time last year this story would never have made it to the net
maybe abusing them and cajoling them is working