It is the kind of stunt that has many fearing the worst: Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders plans to release a film about Islam. Politicians worldwide are already trying to stop the project, before a single scene has been shown. Critics fear the film could lead to bloodshed in many countries.
Let us summarize what has happened to date. On Nov. 2, 2004, an Islamic fundamentalist murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a descendant of the painter Vincent van Gogh, in broad daylight on a street in Amsterdam.
The killer, a 26-year-old Dutch citizen, the son of Moroccan immigrants, shot the filmmaker at 9 a.m. as van Gogh was riding his bicycle. He then slit his throat and, using a knife, pinned a note to his victim’s chest, claiming responsibility and explaining his motives. The killer’s true target was politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But she, unlike van Gogh, was under 24-hour police protection. The bloody act was also a declaration of war against Dutch society, which, as the murderer was convinced, was controlled “by the Jews.”
Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali had collaborated to produce a short film called “Submission,” which uses four real-life examples to illustrate the poor treatment of women in Islam. The film was shown on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. Mosques in the Netherlands were unhappy about it, but their reactions were less vehement than expected. Van Gogh had already developed a reputation as a provocateur who paid little attention to what people thought about him — a committed enfant terrible. He liked to refer to Muslims as “geitenneukers,” or goat fuckers. He made fun of dead Jews by describing them as “copulating yellow stars in the gas chamber.” He also had little regard for Christian values and symbols.
Even more than the deadly attack on “populist” Pim Fortuyn, who was shot to death by a “white Dutchman” in 2002, the van Gogh murder brought to an abrupt end the Dutch dream of a multicultural society, one in which everyone could live more or less as he pleased. From one day to the next, the Dutch realized that they had long ignored a significant problem. The country had more than a million immigrants, most of them from North Africa, who were increasingly isolating themselves from or feeling marginalized by society the longer they lived in the Netherlands.
In the November 2006 elections, the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid), which liberal politician Geert Wilders, 45, had established two years earlier, won nine of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament. Not unlike van Gogh, Wilders seems to gravitate toward conflict. He is as popular as he is controversial. His friends value him for his directness, while his enemies disparage him as a populist walking in the footsteps of murdered politician Pim Fortuyn.
Wilders, who believes that the Netherlands has been “taken hostage” by well-intentioned people on the left, wants to see the country “returned to the people.” He wants both the Koran and Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to be banned in the Netherlands, because, as he claims, they incite people to commit acts of hate and violence. He also wants the country to deport criminals with dual citizenship to their countries of origin. Wilders was voted “politician of the year” by Dutch public broadcaster NOS in December 2007.
Wilders isn’t exactly free to enjoy the tribute, though. He is under 24-hour police protection and has slept in a different place every night since Islamic Web sites first began calling for his beheading. While the police take the death threats seriously, Wilders is more relaxed. “You don’t get used to it,” he said in an interview, “but you learn to live with the threat.”
In late November 2007, Wilders announced that he was working on a film that would depict “the intolerant and fascist nature of the Koran.” Spokespeople from the Dutch interior and justice ministries expressed their concern about the project, but they also stressed that they had no power to dissuade the parliamentarian from going through with his plan or to prevent the film from being broadcast.
Since then, a film that no one has seen and of which no one can say that it will ever exist has become a daily topic of discussion and speculation in the Netherlands. Wilders is fueling the debate by occasionally announcing how far along the project is. In an article he wrote for the newspaper De Telegraaf in late January 2008, he announced that the film would be released in March. According to Wilders, it would be shown on a split screen, with verses and suras from the Koran on one side and examples of Sharia law being carried out on the other, including a beheading and a stoning. If Dutch television networks are unwilling to broadcast the film, Wilders said he would show it on YouTube.
This triggered a panic in the Netherlands that could only be likened to the dread leading up to a massive storm. The Dutch ambassador in Malaysia warned that protests could lead to “dozens of deaths.” Dutch ambassadors in Islamic countries were instructed to increase security measures and distance themselves from the Wilders film, while counterterrorism experts at home began making preparations for the day of the broadcast. These included meetings with representatives of Muslim congregations, who Dutch officials hoped would have a moderating effect on their brothers and sisters.
It didn’t help when the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr. Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, pointed out the dangers that the Dutch and the rest of the world could face. “If Wilders tears up or burns a Koran in his film, it will mean, quite simply, that he is encouraging war and bloodshed. If there is unrest, bloodshed and violence after the broadcast of the Koran film, Wilders will be responsible.” Instead of reprimanding the Syrian grand mufti for his words, European Union parliamentarians celebrated him as an ambassador of peace, tolerance and “intercultural dialogue.”
Whatever its intent, his message was heard. In early March, a few hundred Afghans demonstrated against the Wilders film in the northern Afghani city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where they burned Dutch flags and called for the withdrawal of Dutch NATO units from Afghanistan. This prompted NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to express his concern that broadcasting the film could have an “impact” on the troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Dutch Premier: “We Must Consider the Consequences of our Actions”
A few days later, the Dutch foreign minister asked the EU to support the Dutch position. He said that the Dutch believe in freedom of expression, but are against portraying all Muslims as extremists. At the same time, the “terror alarm” in the Netherlands was raised to its second-highest level. The government of Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende appealed to Wilders to abandon his plan to broadcast the film. On the one hand, Balkenende said, “constitutional freedoms must be defended, while extremism and terrorism must be fought.” On the other hand, he continued, “we must consider the consequences of our actions and may not endanger the things that are valuable to us all.”
Wilders reaction was clear. “The cabinet is falling onto its knees before Islam and capitulating,” he said, characterizing Balkenende as “an anxious man who has chosen the side of the Taliban.”
But Balkenende is only doing what he believes is the best thing to do under the circumstances. Meanwhile, both the secretary general of NATO and Iran’s deputy foreign minister have offered the Dutch advice on how to neutralize Wilders: by invoking Article 29 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to Article 29, individual rights must be limited when it comes to respect for the freedoms of others and where the public order makes this necessary. Ironically, the man who invoked this article is the deputy foreign minister of a country, Iran, where homosexuals are publicly hanged and adulteresses are stoned to death, and when this happens, no one there invokes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Iranian ambassador to the Netherlands also told a group of journalists that freedom of speech is “not unlimited.”
When asked whether the Netherlands could expect a boycott on Dutch products if the Wilders film is shown, the ambassador was evasive but clear. “All options are on the table,” he said. “No one can say what will happen.”
Hans Gert Pöttering, the president of the European Parliament, issued a similar statement. He called upon the media to impose a “code of behavior” on itself and not to publish anything that could be perceived as “derogatory” by members of religious groups. He also warned the Dutch not to “make a contribution to violence because of our freedom.” These clear words of appeasement, which the chief EU parliamentarian directed against the victims and not the perpetrators of violence, urging the former to be on their best behavior, were — as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote — the result of “anticipated fear” and sounded “dangerously like self-censorship.”
The only one who kept a clear head in this brewing climate of acute fear, preventive adjustment and growing violence was Wilders himself. He called upon Dutch television networks to broadcast his film in its entirety and without having seen it first, which they, of course, rejected. Then Nieuwspoort International Press Center in The Hague agreed to show the film in late March, in connection with a press conference, if Wilders would assume the costs of security for people and property. It was a generous offer, but tantamount to a rejection.
All this leaves Wilders is the Internet — unless, of course, he decides not to show the film, which no one has seen and of which no one can say whether it even exists. The truth is that the “provocateur” has already achieved his goal. Wilders has managed to portray the Dutch and the Europeans as cowards, shouting “we capitulate!” before the battle has even begun.
As he sees it, they are loath to intervene in Iran’s internal affairs but raise no objections when Iran intervenes in their internal affairs. They behave as if they want to protect the members of all religions against insults and abuse, all the while overlooking the fact that it is usually the members of one religion who respond aggressively whenever they are accused of having a propensity for violence.
Wilders could not have achieved more if his film had been shown.
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