Femke Halsema opens Celebrating Dissent:

Heretics, infidels and renegades,

Welcome to Amsterdam.

“After […] daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught. […] and after all of this has been investigated […], they have decided, with their consent, that [he] should be excommunicated and expelled […]

Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. […] The Lord will not spare him,

but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.”

Good morning everybody,

I hope this good old piece of theocratic prose will get you in the mood to celebrate dissent. The particular lines I just read are from the official text used to expel Baruch de Spinoza from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in 1656. But the fanatical scribes of the seventeenth century display some universal aspects of oppressors:

Much hate and a complete absence of a sense of humor.

I would like to thank Yoeri and De Balie for inviting me to open the Celebrating Dissent Festival. It’s an honour to welcome to Amsterdam the brave men and many heroic women, who will take to the stage here today and the coming days.

Without dissent and protest change and progress are not possible.

This city has a long history as a safe haven for free-thinkers. From Spinoza, who laid the foundation for the Enlightenment, to the first marriage between same-sex couples.

Amsterdam has often served as the backdrop for those people pursuing freedom, and resist prevailing prejudices and dogmas.

We should learn from this aspect of our history. It is an incentive to guard our freedom every day and to resist complacency.

Because even this city knows the consequences, from distant and recent history, if we do not guard our freedom. If we do not have the courage to protest, or at least to listen to those who do have the courage.

Spinoza was a little bit of a misogynist, and he would be surprised that today so many of the most outspoken and courageous champions of the freedom of thought and expression are women. It is not a form of victimisation if we conclude that female dissent is met with extra malicious and vile opposition

In her manifesto ‘Women and Power’, British classicist Mary Beard describes how, throughout history, the right to public speaking was an exclusive right of men. She observes that, although a huge amount has been achieved, it still seems to be the case today.

I quote: ”[…] it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it.”

Some of the women who are speaking at the festival are faced with strong and determined opponents who wield the power of states and armed forces.

Protecting freedom is an ongoing struggle in Western democracies too. One which requires vigilance and sometimes loud dissent. So, we are the city where a drag queen can take a taxi in the middle of the night. But we are also the city where a lesbian couple is beaten up in public. Where girls who do not want to wear a hijab are berated or worse and girls who do want to wear the headscarf are also scolded and harassed.

Many of the heroes at this festival are fighting a battle, but not with bullets, missiles or bombs. Their pens, voices and sometimes their naked bodies are their weapons. Only if they have our unconditional support will these weapons be more powerful than the dogmas, propaganda and thought police of our opponents.

Take a look at the women appearing on stage after me. They are not only the hope for freedom in the countries that they come from. They are also an example for Amsterdam. A source of inspiration for women who do not feel they are seen. A role model for the girls who dare not speak out. And a warning for men who still find excuses in their traditions, upbringing or holy books to deny women the freedom, respect and dignity that they demand for themselves.

If we follow the course of reason and pursue freedom we shape our own identities. Spiritual practices can be a source of inspiration but cannot trump our individual conscience. Traditions can bring generations together, but they must not stand in the way of modernisation. The love of one’s country is better expressed through ideas on how to improve it, than through glorification of an imaginary community. Identity politics can be a part of emancipatory struggles, but this should not lead to parochialism and a cult of victimisation.

Sometimes it seems that the brave dissenters are small in numbers. But they are the voices of the many. As we have seen recently on the streets of Moscow and Hong Kong.

So let’s give them the stage, let’s lend them our ears, let’s show our support. To the heretics, the infidels end the renegades.

Thank you and enjoy the festival