Tensions are growing over the expected release of a film by Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party. At the end of last year Mr Wilders announced he was working on a film about the Koran as “a source of inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror”. Dutch ministers have apparently been holding secret meetings about the film for some time. They are concerned about its possible repercussions in the Netherlands and abroad.
During a visit to the European Parliament in Strasburg this week, Syria’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun said that if the Freedom Party leader tears up or burns a Koran in his film,”this will simply mean he is inciting wars and bloodshed. And he will be responsible. It is the responsibility of the Dutch people to stop Wilders.”The Muslim cleric’s tone is reminiscent of the crisis that followed the publishing of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed two years ago. His words are all the more ominous considering that the most violent protests took place in Syria.
Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, which has nine seats in the 150-member Dutch Lower House
The Dutch authorities are concerned about the possible repercussions of the anti-Koran film which Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders plans to release at the end of January.
On Wednesday it was announced that Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst and Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin have been holding secret meetings about the expected consequences for some time. The National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Tjibbe Joustra, is also involved in the discussions.
Mr Wilders announced his plans last November. He said he was making a film to show that the Koran is a fascist book which incites believers to violence and hatred.
Mr Wilders’ remarks about Islam have become increasingly radical since the beginning of 2007. In February last year he said that if Muslims want to stay in the Netherlands they should tear out half the Koran and throw it away. In parliament he then called for the Koran to be banned, a proposal that was promptly rejected.
Mr Wilders now appears to be continuing his campaign against the Koran with this film. However, its exact content and where it will be shown remains shrouded in mystery. The big question is whether he will publicly desecrate the Koran, perhaps by tearing it up or burning it.
Shortly after Mr Wilders had announced the making of his film, the interior and justice ministers held an interview with him, warning him of its possible repercussions and the associated risks to him personally. It appears that in November the interior minister also sent a letter to all mayors in the Netherlands, asking them to be ‘extra alert’ to the tensions that might arise, even before the film is released. “The announcement of the film,” she wrote, “could lead to unrest in society and tension between population groups.”
Police forces in major cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam say they are preparing for possible disturbances after the premiere of the notorious film, and seeking the cooperation of imams and other leading figures in the Muslim communities.
The Dutch authorities are also concerned about the reaction abroad, bearing in mind the spectre of the Danish cartoon crisis two years ago, when in many Muslim countries demonstrations were held, some of which turned violent. Dutch embassies in Islamic countries have received instructions on how to respond to possible violent protests against the film, and Dutch citizens abroad have been asked to register with their embassies in case evacuation becomes necessary.
Earlier this week Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen was in Madrid to attend the Alliance of Civilisations, an international forum aimed at reducing tensions between the Islamic world and the West. He was repeatedly questioned about the film. Addressing the forum he spoke about freedom of religion and expression. “It is difficult to anticipate the content of the film, but freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend.”
If the film is unacceptable, said Mr Verhagen, the Dutch government will express its disagreement in no uncertain terms. After the Danish cartoon crisis, various experts said they believed the wave of protest around the world might have been prevented if the Danish government had immediately distanced itself from the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.