Blasphemy law revival upsets the Dutch elite

A proposal to revive a blasphemy law to calm sectarian tensions in Holland has outraged artists, writers and the political elite.

The plan follows the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan extremist in Amsterdam two weeks ago.

The killing was followed by bomb attacks on mosques and reprisal attacks on churches.

In response, the Dutch justice minister, Piet Hein Donner, has proposed enforcing a 1932 law banning "scornful blasphemy".

The minister told the Dutch parliament on Tuesday that the law was needed to curb "hateful comments", whether oral or written, that were destabilising the country.

"If the opinions have a potentially damaging effect on society, the government must act," he said. "It is not about religion specifically, but any harmful comments in general."

Mr Donner, a Christian-Democrat, said strict enforcement was needed to stop "explosive material" setting off yet more violence.

His announcement horrified Holland's free-thinking intelligentsia, mostly congregated in the university enclaves of Amsterdam, Delft, Utrecht and The Hague.

A group of writers and artists published a letter in the Volkskrant newspaper condemning the idea as an assault on free speech and asking whether they would be hauled before an inquisition for poking fun at religion.

The blasphemy law was introduced by Mr Donner's grandfather, Jan Donner, Holland's Right-wing justice minister in the 1930s, to silence a communist newspaper, which had suggested banning Christmas.

The law has not been invoked since 1968 when a Dutch novelist, Gerard Kornells van het Reve, was prosecuted for depicting God as a randy donkey. He was acquitted by Holland's top court on the grounds that his intent was not "scornful".

Blasphemy, which carries a three-month prison sentence, covers insults against God but is ambiguous about saints and religious figures.

It was unclear whether Theo van Gogh would have fallen foul of the law. An inflammatory provocateur, he relished denigrating Islam, Judaism and Christianity in equal measure as forms of barbarous superstition.

He called Muslims "pimps of the Prophet", while accusing Jews of milking the Holocaust for sympathy, for which he faced a defamation suit.

It is also unclear whether Mr van Gogh would have been allowed to broadcast his film Submission, which dealt with Islam's treatment of women and apparently provoked his murder.

Rita Verdonk, the hard-line immigration minister, said invoking the blasphemy law smacked of cultural surrender to Islamic extremists. It would impose Muslim standards of acceptable free speech, she said, and asked why misogynist and homophobic comments by Islamic clerics were not to be treated in the same way.

Laetitia Griffith, an MP for the VVD liberals, said the justice minister was exploiting Mr van Gogh's murder to impose his bible-belt values on the country.

The Dutch parliament is expected to vote next Tuesday on a counter-proposal by the Left-wing D-66 party to expunge the blasphemy law from the criminal code.