The law, which was drafted in the 1930s, had not been used for half a century, leading legislators to decide there was no longer a need for it.
Discussions over whether to formally abolish blasphemy restrictions in the Netherlands began a decade ago as part of a debate about the limits of freedom of expression.
But Marc Veldt, a media-law lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht, says the decision was made possible by national elections in September, in which two liberal parties emerged victorious. Far-right and conservative parties, which had opposed lifting the blasphemy ban, took heavy losses in the poll.
Veldt says the move to lift the ban on blasphemy was also an indirect result of the legal case involving anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders. In June 2011, a Dutch court ruled that Wilders had the right to criticize Islam, even though his opinions insulted many Muslims.
Wilders, who leads the Freedom Party, had described Islam as “fascist” and compared Islam’s holy book, the Koran, to Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and political manifesto “Mein Kampf.” Amsterdam judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders’ statements were directed at Islam and not at Muslims. Van Oosten said the statements were “gross and denigrating” but still “acceptable within the context of public debate.”
Wilders said at the time that the verdict was “not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands.”
The decision to abolish the country’s blasphemy law has been hailed by activists internationally, who have long called it outdated and a threat to free speech.
One of them is Padraig Reidy, a news editor at “Index on Censorship,” a magazine based in London that is devoted to protecting freedom of expression.
Reidy says many European states still have laws prohibiting blasphemy, although in many cases such legislation has not been invoked for decades. Different European countries have taken their own trajectories on the issue in recent years, making it hard to discern a clear trend.
Britain, for example, scrapped a blasphemy law in 2008, which had made it illegal to insult Christianity. But it has since replaced it with a more general law against incitement to religious hatred.
Ireland introduced a new law in 2010 that makes blasphemy a crime punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($32,485). The Irish law defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defenses permitted.”
Reidy argues that blasphemy laws are no longer relevant in the 21st century. He says there is no place for a law defending religion, which he calls an “ideal.” He says it should be people who have rights, not ideals.
“There’s no question that blasphemy laws are a severe restriction on free speech. Any push back against blasphemy laws — [against the notion that ideas] should be protected — is a good thing. It’s very important that blasphemy laws should be repealed,” Reidy says.
Even with the repeal of the blasphemy law, it still remains an offense under Dutch law to insult police officers or Queen Beatrix, the country’s monarch. Laws also protect individuals and groups from hate speech.