On a sunny May morning, six plainclothes police officers, two uniformed policemen and a trio of functionaries from the state prosecutor’s office closed in on a small apartment in Amsterdam. Their quarry: a skinny Dutch cartoonist with a rude sense of humor. Informed that he was suspected of sketching offensive drawings of Muslims and other minorities, the Dutchman surrendered without a struggle.
“I never expected the Spanish Inquisition,” recalls the cartoonist, who goes by the nom de plume Gregorius Nekschot, quoting the British comedy team Monty Python. A fan of ribald gags, he’s a caustic foe of religion, particularly Islam. The Quran, crucifixion, sexual organs and goats are among his favorite motifs.
Mr. Nekschot, whose cartoons had appeared mainly on his own Web site, spent the night in a jail cell. Police grabbed his computer, a hard drive and sketch pads. He’s been summoned for further questioning later this month by prosecutors. He hasn’t been charged with a crime, but the prosecutor’s office says he’s been under investigation for three years on suspicion that he violated a Dutch law that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. […]
“This is serious. It is about freedom of speech,” says Mark Rutte, the leader of a center-right opposition party. Some of Mr. Nekschot’s oeuvre is “really disgusting,” he says, “but that is free speech.” […]
How to handle Muslim sensitivities is one of Europe’s most prickly issues. Islam is Europe’s fastest-growing religion, with immigrants from Muslim lands often rejecting a drift toward secularism in what used to be known as Christendom. About 6% of Holland’s 16.3 million people are Muslims, and nearly half of Amsterdam’s population is of foreign origin. Some predict the city could have a Muslim majority within a decade or so.
The contrasting Danish and Dutch responses “show that there is a serious struggle of ideas going on for the future of Europe,” says Flemming Rose, a Danish newspaper editor who commissioned the drawings of Muhammad in Jyllands-Posten. At stake, he says, is whether democracy protects the right to offend or embraces religious taboos so that “citizens have a right not to be offended.”[…]
Afshin Ellian, an Iranian-born history of law professor at Holland’s Leiden University, says he fled Tehran to escape religious taboos and now worries that Europe is “importing problems from the Middle East.” He understands why Muslims, Christians and other devout believers might take offense at certain cartoons, paintings or texts, but he calls it “a matter of aesthetics not criminal law.” […]
If formally charged and taken to court, Mr. Nekschot risks up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of â‚¬16,750, or about $26,430, says his Amsterdam lawyer, Max Vermeij. He thinks the odds on his client being prosecuted are better than even but draws some comfort from recent Dutch court rulings in discrimination cases that mostly came down on the side of free speech. […]
Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin, when grilled about the cartoon affair in Parliament, promised to protect Mr. Nekshot’s anonymity so as “to guarantee the suspect’s safety.” (The Wall Street Journal also agreed not to publish Mr. Nekschot’s real name.)
But the minister, a devout Christian, added fuel to a mounting political furor by revealing the existence of a previously secret bureaucratic body, called the Interdepartmental Working Group on Cartoons. Officials later explained that the cartoon group had no censorship duties and had been set up after the 2006 Danish cartoon crisis to alert Dutch officials to any risks the Netherlands might face. The group examined Mr. Nekschot’s work, say officials, but played no part in his arrest. Headed by a senior bureaucrat from a national agency coordinating counterterrorism, it draws from the intelligence service, the interior minister, the prosecutor’s office and various other government bodies.…