Tension high, Dutch ponder old blasphemy law

THE HAGUE – Dutch leaders debated Tuesday about invoking a rarely used law banning blasphemy in response to a wave of ethnic tension and violence.

Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner told Parliament that he wanted to revive a 1932 law to isolate radicals and curb “hateful comments.”

But he was vague on how it would be applied, which he said would be up to the courts.

Under the law, violators could face jail terms of up to three months and a fine for insulting a person’s religious faith, either orally or in writing. It was last invoked in 1968.

The debate comes two weeks after the slaying of Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker whose film “Submission” criticized the treatment of women in Islam and enraged many of the country’s Muslims, who number about a million. The main suspect in van Gogh’s murder is Islamic.

Donner did not respond when asked whether the law was intended to restrict mosque sermons that could be considered inciting, or whether it could target provocative films like van Gogh’s.

“If the opinions have a potentially damaging effect on society, the government must act,” he said. “It is not about religion specifically, but any harmful comments in general,” he said in a parliamentary debate.

Political leaders angrily responded to Donner’s proposal. D66, the smallest party in the governing coalition, submitted a motion to remove the blasphemy clause from the criminal code.

“Since van Gogh’s murder there are great doubts about what can and cannot be said,” said Lousewies van der Laan, parliamentary leader of D66. Instead of addressing those concerns, he said, the minister proposes “to dust off a barely used law on blasphemy.”

Van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death Nov. 2 on an Amsterdam street. More than 20 arson attacks and reprisals against churches and mosques followed his killing, revealing previously hidden ethnic hatreds.

Donner said the law was “part of promoting integration, part of taking away the possible explosive material in society to avoid reactions like we had last week.”

Much of the recent public debate has come down to the perceived gap between the values of Dutch natives and foreign imams who preach at Dutch mosques.

An adviser to Queen Beatrix said Tuesday that the Netherlands must clamp down on the far-right and shun anti-immigration populists.

“How is it possible that in Spain, after the attacks on trains in which 191 people died, not a single mosque was set on fire?” said Max van der Stoel, a former Dutch foreign minister. “It happened in the Netherlands, which makes you think.”

Van der Stoel, a former national minorities high commissioner for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged the Dutch government to build bridges with Muslims. His comments came a day after Pim Fortuyn, the maverick anti-immigration populist who was killed by an animal rights activist in 2002, was voted “Greatest Dutchman” in a television contest.

Historians expressed shock that Fortuyn had been chosen as “Greatest Dutchman” ahead of William of Orange, the postwar Prime Minister Willem Drees, the diarist Anne Frank, and Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt. About 300,000 people voted in the television contest broadcast late Monday.

“Extreme right-wing youths must be dealt with firmly,” van der Stoel told the Algemeen Dagblad daily. “Burning mosques show tensions increasing in an intolerable way. Then relations between natives and foreigners are really in danger.”

Van der Stoel said the situation in the Netherlands reminded him in the last few days of religious violence in Macedonia in 2001. “If we don’t do anything, the chasms will get deeper and the walls of distrust will become ever higher,” he said.

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