The boundaries of free speech in Europe widened Thursday after a Dutch court acquitted politician Geert Wilders of inciting hatred against Muslims when he compared Islam with Naziism and called for a ban on the Quran.
Political analysts say the ruling will likely embolden Wilders and other right-wing populists across the continent to ramp up their anti-immigrant rhetoric, with remarks like Wilders' call for a "head rag tax" now squarely within the boundaries of fair political debate.
The ruling did lay down a clear limit: Calls for violence remain out of bounds. Wilders, who has lived under constant police protection due to death threats since 2004, has never called for violence or endorsed it.
Presiding Judge Marcel van Oosten said some of Wilders' comments — such as saying foreign influences are "breeding" in the Netherlands and threatening to overrun Dutch culture — may be "crude and denigrating." But he said they did not amount to inciting hatred and must be seen in a wider context of a fierce national debate over immigration policy and multiculturalism.
While the United States has enshrined the right to freedom of speech in its Constitution, many European nations introduced hate-speech laws in the wake of World War II, determined to prevent the scapegoating of minorities.
Van Oosten cited one of Wilders' most incendiary statements — "the core of the problem is the fascist Islam, the sick ideology of Allah and Mohammed as laid down in the Islamic Mein Kampf: the Quran" — saying that criticism of a religion and its followers is not illegal.
'Victory for freedom of expression'
Wilders sat stone-faced while the judge read the ruling, but smiled broadly and shook hands with his lawyers after the verdict. His cheering supporters hugged each other in the public gallery, and Wilders waved to them and grinned as he left the courtroom.
"I'm incredibly happy with this acquittal on all counts," Wilders said outside the courtroom.
"It's not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands. Fortunately you're allowed to discuss Islam in public debate and you're not muzzled in public debate. An enormous burden has fallen from my shoulders," he said.
Political science professor Andre Krouwel of Amsterdam's Free University said Wilders might have been convicted a decade ago, but his ideas have since entered the mainstream. Wilders' Freedom political party is now the country's third-largest in parliament and it is propping up an all-conservative Dutch government that agrees with much of his right-wing platform.
"(The verdict) will further the inward-looking and to some extent xenophobic atmosphere in the Netherlands," predicted professor Leo Lucassen, chair of the Social History department at Leiden University.
The verdict comes a week after the government announced plans to end programs to help integrate immigrants into Dutch society, which "fuels this idea of immigrants who are basically an alien element to the Dutch people," Lucassen told The Associated Press.
The government also is moving to ban Muslim face-covering clothing and to further slash immigration.
Populist rhetoric 'legalized"
Dutch Muslims who pressed for the trial said Wilders' strident anti-Islam tone has already led to increased discrimination and harassment against them, and even attacks on mosques. But Krouwel said seeking remedy in the courts proved an "incredible mistake" because Thursday's decision "legalized populist rhetoric."
"Inside the Netherlands and outside, politicians will now go the same way: to the edge of what is allowed," he told the AP. "Right-wing politicians in other countries will be able to point to the Netherlands and say, 'They can say it there, why not here?'"
Immigration-related issues have dominated politics in the Netherlands and much of Europe over the past decade. Wilders has drawn comparisons with populists such as the late Jorg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.
His stances resound deeply with Dutch voters, who have reconsidered their famous tolerance amid fears their culture is being eroded by immigrants who don't share their values. Around six percent of the Dutch population is now Muslim.
Groups that filed the complaints that led to Wilders' prosecution were disappointed with Thursday's ruling.
"What surprises me is that the judge says that what's permissible is determined by the context of the societal debate," said Aydin Akkaya, chairman of Council of Turks in the Netherlands. "In other words, if you just find a 'context' you can go nuts."
Mohamed Rabbae, chairman of the moderate National Moroccan Council, said the case has gone as far as it can in the Dutch courts and the battle will switch to another venue.
"We will go to the U.N. Committee for Human Rights in Geneva. The suit will be directed against the government of the Netherlands for not protecting ethnic minorities against racism and discrimination," he said in an email.
The court found that Wilders was "at the edge of what's legally permissible" when he described the threat Islam allegedly poses to Dutch culture as "a fight going on and we must arm ourselves."
"This has an inciting character," Van Oosten said. But because the lawmaker later added that he has no objections to Muslims who integrate and accept Dutch values, judges ruled he had not crossed the line.
The court paid special attention to Wilders' 2008 film, "Fitna," — Arabic for "ordeal" — a 15-minute series of verses from the Quran juxtaposed against news videos of violence and terrorism. The film prompted angry demonstrations and official protests around the Muslim world.
"Given the film in its whole and the context of societal debate, the court finds that there is no question of inciting hate with the film," the judgment said.
Even prosecutors called for his acquittal and said they are satisfied with the ruling. Despite prosecutors' initial reluctance to prosecute the politician, the court ruled last year that it was in society's interest the case be heard, given public confusion over free speech rules.