Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament and leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, spoke on campus Wednesday at an event hosted by the Columbia University College Republicans.
Wilders’ appearance sparked substantial controversy, as he is known for his provocative calls to end Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and impose a national ban of the Quran. The Republicans maintained that their invitation was not an endorsement of Wilders’ views—which they characterized as “extreme”—but rather a defense of free speech. The issue has become perennial at Columbia, where from Minutemen Project founder Jim Gilchrist’s appearance in 2006 to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address in 2007, the distinction between free speech and hate speech has been the subject of heated debate.
“We felt that inviting Mr. Wilders would provide Columbia with a view into what freedom of speech is like in other parts of the world, how it has been limited, and how it is very important that we continue to fight for that freedom,” College Republicans member and event organizer David Honeycutt said in a statement.
Wilders was invited to discuss free speech and his experience with repression. In February, the British government banned him from the country, though a court overturned the ban this month, and within the Netherlands there have been numerous calls for his prosecution. “I would not qualify myself as a free man anymore,” Wilders said.
He devoted much of his address to criticizing Islam, stating at various points, “The Quran is an evil book, full of violence, murder, terrorism, war,” “Muhammad was not a perfect man—he was a mass murderer and a pedophile,” and “Europe is in the process of becoming ‘Eurabia.’” He maintained that he did not hate Muslims, distinguishing between the Muslim people and the “ideology” of Islam.
“We didn’t invite him to talk about his views on Islam,” the Republicans wrote in a statement released on Thursday. “We find the fact that he spent so much of his speech talking about those views regrettable, but he did explain that those views play a part in his concern for free speech.”
Wilders sought to draw a direct connection between Islam and his own repression, stating, “Free speech is Islam’s enemy,” and calling cultural relativism and Muslim immigration obstacles of free speech.
But not all agreed with Wilders’ conception of freedom.
“We are fundamentally accepting of freedom of speech, which is not denied in Islam,” said Adel Elsohly, a graduate adviser to the Muslim Students Association of Columbia. “What are denied are hateful and derisive comments.”
Elsohly argued that “freedom from fear” is just as important as freedom of speech, but added that the MSA chose not to protest the event in order to underscore its commitment to First Amendment principles.
While she doesn’t support his views, “I think it is important that we can hear what he has to say,” Wijnie de Groot, a Dutch lecturer at Columbia, said of Wilders. “Banning him or preventing him from speaking does not serve any purpose. On the contrary, we need to hear what a politician such as Wilders has to say so that we can voice an opinion and reaction to it.”
The Republicans invoked this idea of dialogue as well. “CUCR invited Geert Wilders not because of his views, which the club does not in any way endorse, but rather because he is one of the more prominent victims of free speech limitation in Europe and in other parts of the world,” the Republicans wrote. “As anyone who has studied the history of free speech knows, its defense lies not where mainstream views are voiced but rather among those who hold unpopular, offensive, or extreme views.”
Wilders’ appearance at Columbia came one day after he spoke at Temple University, where his speech was cut off midway through and his invitation officially rescinded due to student protests. At
Columbia, few protesters stood outside the International Affairs Building, where several police officers guarded the doors. Only one poster could be seen, reading “No to racism, no to Islamophobia, stop Geert Wilders’ Euro-fascism.”
“Columbia students, passionate as they are, have an admirable respect for dialogue and CUCR believes that is exactly what took place last night,” the Republicans stated. “The students, instead of shouting down Wilders like those at Temple did on Tuesday, expressed their passionate views regarding Wilders through thoughtful questions and constructive inquiry.”
Andrea Aractingi contributed reporting.