Americans of a certain generation remember Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky, and Vladimir Bukovsky—Soviet-era dissidents who faced criminal charges simply for speaking out against a tyrannical system. We admired them for their courage and scorned the cowards who muzzled them.
Today in Europe, in part of what we jokingly call “the Free World,” there still are dissidents who are persecuted and even jailed for speaking out. They, however, get none of the admiration the Soviets got and most Americans don’t even know their names. That is because our rulers and elites support freedom of speech only when they agree with it, not on principle. They don’t care or even notice if Europeans behave as brutally as the Soviets did, so long as their targets are “racists” and “xenophobes.”
Consider only the most recent victims of political persecution: Frank Vanhecke and Suzanne Winter. Mr. Vanhecke is a member of the European Parliament and former president of the Vlaams Belang (VB), a party that lawfully and peacefully campaigns for Flemish independence from Belgium and an end to Islamic immigration. In 2005, the local VB publication in the Flemish town of Sint-Niklaas published a 130-word article claiming that Muslims were vandalizing town graves and that Islam was “a culture that has no respect for the dead or for the symbols of a different faith.” The vandals were later identified as Belgians, and the VB publication immediately issued a correction, but the authorities still pronounced the article “racist.” Mr. Vanhecke did not write the article, nor did he see it before it was published, but the Socialist mayor of Sint-Niklass brought charges of “racism” against him because he was then head of the party.
Belgian authorities leapt at the chance to prosecute Mr. Vanhecke but were prevented by his immunity as a member of the European Parliament. The Belgian justice minister therefore lobbied the Euro-parliament to strip him of immunity, which it did in an overwhelming vote on November 18. Mr. Vanhecke can now be tried, and faces up to two years in prison if he is found guilty of “racism.” He could also be stripped of civil rights for five years, during which time he would be barred from holding elective office. This would be a great victory for the Belgian establishment; Mr. Vanhecke was to be the lead candidate on the VB list for Euro-parliament elections in June, in which nationalist parties across the continent are expected to make solid gains.
This prosecution is openly political. Aside from the absurdity of making it a crime to criticize Muslims, Belgian law requires that if the author of an offending text is known, he must be charged first—an editor or supervisor can be charged only if the author is not known or has already been found guilty. The name of the author is known, but the Belgian establishment is not interested in him; it wants the former head of a party it hates. It is, of course, only continuing the brutal procedures is perfected in November 2004 when it managed to ban the entire Flemish party through trumped up charges of “racism.” Belgium, in other words, is behaving in ways that would have made Leonid Brezhnev proud—and America looks the other way.
Austria has also decided to put a dissident politician through the same tyrannical procedure. Suzanne Winter is a member of parliament for the Austrian Freedom Party, one of Europe’s most dynamic nationalist parties, formerly led by the charismatic Joerg Haider. During a campaign for city council in Graz last January, she said that Islam was “a totalitarian system of domination that should be cast back to its birthplace on the other side of the Mediterranean,” that Mohammed had written the Koran during a series of “epileptic fits,” and that by today’s standards he was a child molester because he married a six-year-old. The president of the Islamic Communities of Austria, Anas Schakfeh, warned that Miss Winter had stirred up a “wrathful mood” among Muslims and that he could not rule out violence. Indeed, Miss Winter had to hire bodyguards when a threatening video appeared on YouTube.
Needless to say, Miss Winter won her city council election, and on the strength of her growing popularity took a seat in the Austrian parliament in legislative elections in September. (If you were a subscriber to AR you would know all about these important elections—see the first page of last month’s issue here.) This was clearly a woman who had to be stopped. On November 26, under pressure from prosecutors, Austrian legislators voted to lift immunity so she could be charged with incitement, degradation of religious symbols, and religious agitation.
Miss Winter met the vote with her head held high. She welcomed a trial, she said, because “only through the considerations of an independent court can clarification be obtained on this issue.” She denounced the charges against her as “political hatred by confused, self-proclaimed thought-guards,” and said that such a prosecution could take place only under a “dictatorship of conscience.” She faces up to two years in prison if convicted.
Again, the American establishment is silent, and its silence speaks volumes. What does it tell us about what our own dissidents may expect from a notoriously leftist new president and a solidly Democratic Congress?