A controversial anti-blasphemy law is being scrapped by the Dutch government. The move is remarkable as two of the current three members of the ruling coalition are Christian parties and they had originally wanted to maintain the ban.
In scrapping the law the cabinet is meeting the demand of parliament where a majority of parties argued that offering religious groups an extra layer of legal protection is outdated.
As an alternative the cabinet is now seeking to strengthen anti-discrimination laws against groups whatever their background, thus taking the religious component out of the equation.
Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin (photo), says the law will now offer the same protection to all.
Freedom of speech/from discrimination
There has been much discussion about the balance between freedom of speech and the right not to be discriminated against in the past few years in the Netherlands, particularly around the role of Islam in society.
Populist politicians like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has now left the Dutch political scene, and Geert Wilders, have been constant critics of what they see as the negative influence of Islam on society.
Famously, Geert Wilders (photo) released a ten-minute web film in March this year, Fitna, in which he alternated verses from the Qu'ran with footage of terrorist atrocities committed around the world, including the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. His message was clear: in his view Islam is a violent religion which is out to destroy freedom and democracy.
Threat of prosecution
The Dutch anti-blasphemy law was much talked about - against the backdrop of the continual criticism of Fitna and of its maker Geert Wilders - as a possible means of redress for those who felt offended. Stand-up comedians and cartoonists who sought to satirise extremist Islam have also found themselves being threatened with possible prosecution under the anti-blasphemy law in the past few years.
The discussion about the use of the law, which dates back to the 1930s, made a lot of people worried that the right to freedom of speech was being eroded and that the rights of the religious not to be offended was being given the upper hand.
A majority in parliament, who also feel that religious people deserve no greater protection than non-believers, shared these worries. Jan de Wit, who is a member of the opposition Socialist Party, explains:
"The law was already a dead letter, but it is was principally wrong that believers should have more protection than non-believers. Thank goodness this has now come to an end. And anyway, who decides if God feels offended or not?"
The 'Reve' case
The current law, known as article 147, was famously tested in the 1960s when Dutch author Gerard Reve (photo) found himself in court. He had written a piece in which God comes back to Earth as a donkey. Reve described himself, in great detail, having sex with the donkey.
This was too much for Dutch Christian political parties who raised questions in parliament and Reve was eventually prosecuted. After an appeal, Reve was found not guilty - the passages were found to be blasphemous but not in such a way as to be 'malicious and deliberately offensive', a precise definition needed to secure the conviction.
The assumption was that after the Reve case, the law had been rendered dead in the water - other attempts to use it in the years that followed failed - so it was remarkable that the recent criticism of Islam in the public debate had sparked a new discussion.
* translated and edited version (ac)