Geert Wilders is a right-wing Dutch politician, well known in his home country for his aggressive, outspoken, and controversial opinions. He has produced a short film called Fitna (the word translates as “struggle”, “civil war”, and variations on the theme of Jihad) in which he presents extracts from the Koran interlaced with clips of various Muslims calling their followers to conquer the evil world, preaching death to Jews and non-Muslims interlaced with images of Muslim cruelty to their own and to others, terror attacks and deaths. The film also projects the phenomenal rise of the Muslims in Europe and warns that their intention is to take over and deny the freedoms currently enjoyed in free open societies. He intends his film to be a dire warning.
Wilders claimed he was motivated by the death of Theo van Gogh, who was brutally stabbed to death a few years ago in Holland, in broad daylight, by an unrepentant Muslim fanatic, for daring to express contrary views and talking about Muslim threats against freedom of speech and Western values. Wilders believes Europe has capitulated to Muslim extremism and intransigence and is in danger of losing its secular liberal culture simply because it has lost the will to stand up for its values. There is nothing unusual in such views. You will find journalists like Melanie Philips or Michael Gove saying such things in Britain, and others throughout Europe. Those of us who recall Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, about immigrants to Britain causing civil strife, will know that what sent him into the political wilderness was not what he was saying so much as how he said it.
I have no brief for Wilders. I have no brief for his film. But the big question is whether it was refused an airing by all Dutch television stations because of its own merits or out of fear of a Muslim backlash. In the end, Wilders arranged for it to be broadcast on the internet and it appeared briefly on YouTube before YouTube removed it, declaring that it feared for its employees because of death threats it had received. I saw the film on YouTube; then, out of curiosity, I followed it from site to site as each one eventually withdrew it out of fear. Thank goodness for the internet. No wonder dictatorships or autocracies try to ban it.
The film is not balanced and, in fact, not fair. Anyone who has had any contact with the Muslim world knows it is as ridiculous to imply all Muslims are homicidal maniacs as it is to suggest all Jews are extremists and would like to blow up Omar’s Mosque. It is true that proportionally a far greater segment of Muslim world opinion is as fanatical as it is poor and alienated. But anything that fans Islamophobia is as bad as anything that fans anti-Semitism. The problem is one of double standards. Many Muslims feel happy to disseminate the crudest forms of anti-Semitism but cry foul when anyone gives them something back of the same sort.
Jews have had to put up with attacks on their religion for thousands of years. Look at the anti-Semitic and Muslim websites and you’ll find lies and distortions that make Fitna look positively anodyne. You will see anti-Semitic, anti-Judaism cartoons that make the Danish ones seem like Mickey Mouse in comparison.
Similarly, Christianity, in particular since Voltaire, has been subjected to constant criticism and humiliation. Most of us have seen Life of Brian, a hilarious satire on early Christianity, or Mel Brooks’ sketch of Inquisitors torturing Jews to sexy nuns doing a knees up. The founder of Christianity is more divine to many of its followers than Mohammed is to the Muslims, but he has been cast “artistically” in all bodily fluids at one time or another, and in films as anything from sexually ambiguous to politically extremist. Of course, the Church has objected, but to my knowledge they have not threatened anyone with death in recent years. And that’s the issue. Too much of Islam hasn’t grown up yet (or perhaps it needs its own Reformation or Reform).
It seems to me that Islam is behaving like a bully. If you can’t win the argument you think aggression solves the issue. Sadly, a bully often wins and we are witnessing the success of bullies. But, like parents who use violence on their children teach them that violence is the normal way to respond, the more Muslims bully the more they will experience a reaction. This is why I hope that Fitna gets as much exposure as possible. It may not be more than a piece of crude propaganda, but it serves the purpose of asserting freedom of expression in an open society.
We need to combat prejudice wherever it is. We need to protect everyone and anyone from prejudice. There can be no room for Islamophobia. But neither can there be room for bullies to tell us what we can or cannot see or do. Freedom of expression may not yet a universal Muslim value. I am not sure it is in some parts of Judaism, either. But regardless of different histories there can be no room in free societies for trying to stop freedom of expression. If Islam really is worried about the dangers of insult, then it needs to look to its own house first.