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Prof. Fokko Oldenhuis: ‘Debate on the ban on blasphemy is disappointing’.

27 January 2009
The government is discussing scrapping the ban on blasphemy. Hirsch Ballin is making the right choice, but the level of the debate is disappointing, is the opinion of Prof. Fokko Oldenhuis, Professor by special appointment for Law, Religion and Society at the University of Groningen.
Do believers have more right not to be offended than other people? The Lower House of Parliament has been discussing this issue for years. On 14 January the debate suddenly began to move when the governing parties CDA and PvdA enabled the Minister to flesh out his bill. The bill proposes scrapping Article 147 of the Dutch Criminal Code, which forbids blasphemy, and in exchange expanding Article 137c, an article that makes the deliberate insulting of groups of people punishable in law.

Hidden agenda

Article 147 has not been applied since 1968. Oldenhuis: ‘The article has fallen out of use, which is more than enough reason to scrap it. That’s not what the fight should be about.’ Christian parties, however, do not want to just surrender the article and are appealing to its symbolic meaning. That’s partly an emotional response, thinks Oldenhuis. ‘But there are also hidden agendas in the debate. The SGP regards the Netherlands as a Christian society and wants to keep the article. They do not recognize that the Netherlands is multi-religious. In the meantime, the SP is calling the scrapping of Article 147 a historic event, and D66 is delighted. But what’s so historic about it if the article had already fallen into disuse?’

Nothing new

According to Hirsch Ballin, Article 137c must be expanded to compensate for scrapping Article 147. The PvdA is afraid that the minister will let the ban on blasphemy return in Article 137 and does not want to agree to expanding the article. In a letter to the Lower House, Hirsch Ballin writes that he also wants to make indirect insults punishable by law. Even if a group is not explicitly mentioned by name, there could be a question of an insult. Oldenhuis: ‘When I read the letter, it definitely deals with an expansion of Article 137c.’ Is that the reason why the PvdA wants to reject the bill? Oldenhuis: ‘Not if the PvdA keeps a cool head. This expansion appears to me to be opportune and completely in line with the Equal Opportunities Act. You also encounter an ‘indirect element’ there. There’s actually nothing new under the sun. Hirsch Ballin can certainly make that very plausible.’

Disappointing

Oldenhuis thinks that the level of the debate in the Lower House is ‘disappointing’, both on the part of the Christian parties and the secular ones. ‘The Christian parties take far too little account of the fact that all religions should be treated the same and that devout Muslims form a significant proportion of society. If they want to keep Article 147, it should be updated to the realities of 2009. I can well imagine that D66 and the SP are irritated, but I find it disloyal of them to speak of a historic event, and thus politicize the debate. That’s a point they shouldn’t want to make.’

Intolerant

The expectations of the change to the law are too high, thinks Oldenhuis. ‘We are legislating far too much, in my opinion. That’s particularly obvious in the discussions about civil rights. As if a civil right can be absolute. Every right has its limitations, the freedom of expression just as much as the freedom of religion. Debates about religion cannot be eliminated with legislation, they are part of the public domain.’ Simplifications are dominating the debate, in Oldenhuis’s opinion. ‘I think that not enough differentiation is being made between exclusivity and intolerance. If somebody rejects homosexuality on the basis of his reading of the Koran or the Bible, then that is an exclusive opinion and does not have to be deliberately hurtful. However, such a person is usually immediately condemned. That’s extremely intolerant, I think.’

Curriculum Vitae

Fokko T. Oldenhuis (Delfzijl, 1950) studied Dutch Law at the University of Groningen. After graduating he became a lecturer in the Civil Law department of the University. Since 2005 he has been professor of Law, Religion and Society. In addition, since 1993 he has been deputy justice for the Court of Appeal in Arnhem. Alongside publications about religion and the law, Oldenhuis has written many works on liability law and tenancy law.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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