Open Future: Should Geert Wilders’s cartoon contest be allowed?


Khalil Yousuf, a spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslims, argues no

ON MAY 17TH, Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician, announced that he would hold a contest to draw the best cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, whom many Sunni Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims believe should not be visually depicted, in the spirit of free speech. In doing so, he only further entrenched himself as an enemy of free speech rather than its saviour.

In the 1919 case Schenck v United States, the US Supreme Court held that free speech did not give someone the right to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theatre. One century later I feel that Mr Wilders’s proposed cartoon competition should fall into the same category. This is because modern communications have dramatically expanded that hypothetical theatre. Laws must adapt accordingly, not to prevent freedom of speech but to safeguard it. It is a perception shared by the British government’s House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2017 report on abuse, hate and extremism online.

Mr Wilders’s attacks on Muslims, Islam and the Holy Prophet Muhammad have harmful consequences, just as they would if Jews or members of a racial minority were targeted. The unjustified spread of violence made possible by social media only serves to aggravate these consequences.

The number of actual participants in the cartoon competition is unlikely to be very large. But I feel that is beside the point. The competition is about propaganda. Mr Wilders has built a successful, opportunistic political career on anti-Islam statements and poorly disguised prejudice. With 800,000 followers on Twitter, his actions and statements also have reach far beyond the Netherlands. The cartoon competition has only one purpose: to unite far right individuals into his anti-Islam cause. It has little to do with free speech.

On social media, falsehoods often outrun facts. On March 9th MIT researchers published a study in the journal Science entitled “The spread of true and false news online”. It found that the most successful fake-news stories were shared up to 1,000 times more often than the actual facts. This has the capacity to materially damage our freedoms and democracies and is why we must be precise on what utterances deserve the considerable protections of free speech.

Some will understandably bristle at this sort of discussion. They say that the only way to deal with Mr Wilders’s exaggerated, deceitful and hateful speech is with louder and more truthful voices. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s “True Islam” campaigns in America, Europe and elsewhere have initiated an “international Muhammad Speech Contest” in direct response to Mr Wilders’s cartoon competition. It starts at their 2018 Jalsa Salana being held in the UK between the 3rd and 5th of August. It seeks to show the truly peaceful and inclusive example of Prophet Muhammad and is gaining traction. But counter-speech by Ahmadi Muslims and others is plainly not enough.

Hatred and incitement to discrimination, packaged as free speech, have a disproportionate impact on minorities. Society should ensure that nobody feels excluded, discriminated against or the victim of hostility. Clarifying our free-speech laws for the modern age is necessary. They must be drafted to better reflect what is not free speech.

Ideally, such legislation would have three components. First, it would consider context and intended effects. Speech which is grossly offensive, menacing or false should not be protected. Second, it should specifically address incitement of discrimination and hatred, with recklessness forming part of the test of intent. Finally, a public-order test should be adopted. Harmful speech becomes much worse when it is directed to the general public rather than a closed audience. The aim of these cumulative provisions is not to stifle debate, but to encourage personal responsibility and to ensure the continued survival of the liberal, democratic values that enable such robust free-speech protections in the first place.

Khalil Yousuf is the deputy director of communications for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community 


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