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Does the acquittal of Geert Wilders signal a changing Netherlands?

The Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders has called the Quran a "fascist book" that ought to be banned. He has referred to the Prophet Mohammed as "the devil," and said all Muslim immigration to the Netherlands should be stopped and immigrants currently there should be paid to leave. He's said women who wear the hijab should have to pay a tax and if Muslims continue immigrating, it would mean the end "European and Dutch civilization as we know it."

"Take a walk down the street and see where this is going," he once said. "You no longer feel like you are living in your own country. There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves. Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches."

Today, Wilders scored a PR victory when he was acquitted on charges of inciting racial hatred. "The good news is it's legal to be critical about Islam. And this is something we need, because the Islamization of our societies is a major problem and a threat to our freedom," he told reporters in the courthouse lobby following the verdict.

Wilders's acquittal may have attracted headlines, but the truth is that the social and political ground have been shifting in the supposedly tolerant society for years. Last year, Wilders's Party for Freedom won 15 percent of the vote in national elections, making it the third largest in parliament. And his ideas are slowly creeping into mainstream politics: The Netherlands has some of the strictest immigration laws in Europe, and has banned face-covering attire like the niqab.

The current government depends on Wilders and his party to remain in power. Though not formally part of government, they are at the very least a silent partner. Without their votes, the minority-government wouldn't be able to pass its legislation.   

There's a tolerance for nudity and sex," said Holli Semetko, vice provost for international affairs at Emory University, who lived in Amsterdam and studied public opinion there from 1995 until 2003. But tolerance, she said, does not extend to religious communities who might be offended by some of the fleshier aspects of society, and certainly not to immigrants.  

"There is a general tendency I observed there to create a fear on immigration issues -- using ‘what-if' scenarios," she said.

Wilders's judge today said that while some of his statements were "crude and denigrating," they were nevertheless protected speech. But the decision might widen the scope of the debate on multiculturalism in Dutch society, and embolden Wilders to take his anti-Islam and anti-immigration crusade further.

"I'm concerned that today's news will be seen as public intolerance being given a pat on the back from a judge, which will only encourage more stereotyping," Semetko said.

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Ai's out, but the crackdown continues

While Ai Weiwei's surprising release dominated the headlines yesterday, the Chinese government took the chance to detain one of China's most important civil rights lawyers, Xu Zhiyong. Rumors of his disappearance on Wednesday were confirmed first on Twitter and then in a Financial Times article today. However, a post on his Twitter feed suggests that he has since been released. A rough translation:

Thanks everyone for your concern. I've returned home. Last night I was taken away in order to prevent me from taking non-registered permanent residence parents in Beijing to the Ministry of Education to petition for the 12th time.

The last sentence refers to his recent efforts to push for reforms in China's hukou (residency permit) system, which makes it extremely difficult for children of migrant workers to attend schools in the cities to which their parents have moved.

Xu first gained fame as a legal reformer in 2003, when he successfully pushed to end China's extrajudicial system of "black jails." As the head of the Open Constitution Initiative, his clients have included the families of the victims of the China's recent tainted-milk scandal. This spring, he has also been providing legal assistance to the independent candidates' movement gathering steam in China. He himself mounted successful runs in 2003 and 2006 as an independent candidate for a seat in the People's Congress of his home district in Beijing.

Two down, 130 to go.

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