Freedom of conscience is a cornerstone in Western Civilization. However, history demonstrates that freedom of conscience often carries a high price. The quotation listed as the title of this post is attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546) who was said to have spoken these words at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. What he really said is as follows:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
What brought him to make this declaration was his protest against abuses in the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences, written down in his “95 Theses” in 1517. Prior to his appearance at the Diet of Worms, his “95 Theses” was forwarded to Rome where a number of sentences upon examination were condemned as heretical. After ignoring a warning from Pope Leo X, Luther was excommunicated on January 3, 1521. Excommunication in 16th century Europe meant proscription. You were made an outlaw, that is, you no longer had the protection of the law, it was forbidden for anyone to offer you food and shelter and you could be killed on sight without consequence. As it was the responsibility of civil authority to enforce the law, Luther was offered the chance to recant at the Diet of Worms which was the general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire with Emperor Charles V presiding. He refused, in doing so putting his life on the line. He was offered protection from Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and continued his efforts which led to the Protestant Reformation.
In more recent history, freedom of conscience continues to carry a high price, as Geert Wilders, a controversial Dutch centre-right politician and populist, who is best known for his criticism of multiculturalism, immigration policy and especially for his opposition to Islam, can attest. He is on record in the Dutch Parliament in saying:
Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe. If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time. One century ago, there were approximately 50 Muslims in the Netherlands. Today, there are about 1 million Muslims in this country. Where will it end? We are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilization as we know it. Where is our Prime Minister in all this? In reply to my questions in the House he said, without batting an eyelid, that there is no question of our country being Islamified. Now, this reply constituted a historical error as soon as it was uttered. Very many Dutch citizens, Madam Speaker, experience the presence of Islam around them. And I can report that they have had enough of burkas, headscarves, the ritual slaughter of animals, so‑called honour revenge, blaring minarets, female circumcision, hymen restoration operations, abuse of homosexuals, Turkish and Arabic on the buses and trains as well as on town hall leaflets, halal meat at grocery shops and department stores, Sharia exams, the Finance Minister’s Sharia mortgages, and the enormous over representation of Muslims in the area of crime, including Moroccan street terrorists.
Wilders is leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom which holds a small number of seats in the Dutch Parliament. His views are strong, if not extreme, and do not represent the opinion of the majority in Dutch society. Still, he has enough of a following that the party stands to make gains in the years ahead. He is an intelligent and shrewd politician so he should not be discounted as a crank or a crackpot. In addition, he has taken care to distance himself from other populist figures in Europe such as Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jörg Haider. He speaks for himself and for what he thinks is good, right and desirable.
It is his stand on religion (he comes from a Catholic family, but rejected Catholicism when he came of age), Islam in particular, that carries a heavy price. Unfortunately, in the 21st century there are elements in the Islamic world who, like in Christendom in the Middle Ages, call for the assassination or judicial murder of those whom they accuse of defaming their religious beliefs. Wilders lives under police protection as he receives no shortage of death threats. These threats are serious as the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh made clear. Theo van Gogh also criticised Islam. He produced a film, “Submission,” in which he condemned what he saw as the poor treatment of women in this religion. For this affront to Islam he was murdered by a Dutch-born Islamist, Mohammed Bouyer in 2004. While there may have been no consequence for his action had it been carried out in a society under Islamist rule, Bouyer was convicted of murder in a Dutch court and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
While, Wilders continues living under the threat of assassination for his stand against Islam, he also faced legal challenges from civil authorities in the Netherlands and other jurisdictions in the Western World. In 2009 he was put on trial in Amsterdam, facing charges he had incited hatred against Muslims. He was acquitted of these charges in 2011. He was refused entry into the United Kingdom in 2009 by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on the legal grounds that his presence constituted “a threat to public policy, security or health.” The ban on his entering into the UK was set aside by the courts. Most recently, he was found guilty by a Dutch court in a hate speech trial on December 9, 2016, though no fine nor imprisonment was imposed by the court. The charges stemmed from comments he made in 2014 about Moroccans residing in the Netherlands. Wilders remains undeterred an said he will appeal the verdict.
In effect, in pursuing these legal actions, the Dutch and UK governments attempted to get Wilders to recant, that is to end his criticism of Islam. Wilders shows no indication he is going to back down from his opposition to Islam. Just this month, February 2013, he was on a speaking tour in Australia. The tour was originally scheduled for 2012, but was delayed because of difficulties securing a visa. The Australian government allowed him entry, while condemning his views as offensive. While I disagree with much of what Wilders is saying and particularly what he would impose on Dutch society if he were to form a government, I think he has every right to speak his mind and pursue these goals. Freedom of thought and of expression, essentially, freedom of conscience remains a cornerstone of Western Civilization. He has shown he is prepared to pay the price for his right to freedom of conscience and I admire him for that.