Timothy Garton Ash: Intimidation and censorship are no answer to this inflammatory film | Comment is free | The Guardian
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Intimidation and censorship are no answer to this inflammatory film
A Dutch politician's alarmist anti-Islam polemic needs to be taken apart and calmly answered
* Timothy Garton Ash
* The Guardian,
* Thursday April 10 2008
* Article history
About this article
This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday April 10 2008 on p33 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 00:06 on April 10 2008.
At the time of this writing, the dissemination on the worldwide web of the deliberately provocative anti-Islam film Fitna, made by the Dutch populist MP Geert Wilders, has not provoked violent protest on the scale of the Rushdie affair or the Danish cartoons. If things remain this way, that is progress of a kind.
In the meantime, three questions need to be asked about the film, which anyone can find by googling "wilders" and "fitna". The first is "Should Mr Wilders be murdered for making it?" That's what some demonstrators outside the Dutch embassy in Indonesia called for, waving banners saying "Kill Geert Wilders". Theirs is an attitude that the British writer Douglas Murray has sharply characterised as "say my religion is peaceful or I will kill you". More seriously, even before the movie was released, al-Qaida issued a fatwa calling Muslims everywhere to assassinate Wilders, thus further increasing the threat to a man who is already under 24-hour protection.
Now, that Wilders should not be murdered for making a film may seem so obvious that it hardly needs saying. But it does need saying, again and again; in truth, it's the first thing that needs to be said. For one of the most deeply corrosive realities of our time is that not just one but many people across the world are living under death threats, in hiding or with round-the-clock security, simply because they have said, drawn or done something that is alleged to "insult Islam".
Too many Dutch and international leaders have leapt to deplore Wilders' film without first excoriating those who threaten him with death. Particularly egregious is a statement by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, which, in explicitly condemning the film (but not the death threats), actually says "the right of free expression is not at stake here". That's a truly idiotic claim. Mr Ban has no right to make it on our behalf.
The second question is whether Fitna should be banned by law, as the ambassadors of 26 Islamic countries have recently urged the Dutch government to do. Unlike the murder issue, I accept that this is a matter for legitimate debate in a democracy, but my answer remains an unequivocal "no". The film is inflammatory but not, I think, across the line to incitement - and so far, the Dutch justice ministry seems to agree. Wilders' own position here is ludicrously self-contradictory. Last year, he called for the Qur'an to be banned "like Mein Kampf". So he wants the holy book of 1.4 billion people to be banned, but his own film to be seen by everyone. That's his idea of free speech. Who does he think he is? The true prophet?
On the vital understanding that no one should be threatened with death or injury for making or disseminating such a film, and that it should be available for viewing by all consenting adults - if you don't want to watch it you don't have to - the question then becomes: what should we make of it and how should we react to it?
In case you haven't seen it, let me say in telegraphic summary that it consists of a patchwork of selected bloodthirsty quotations from the Qur'an, cross-cut with horrifying clips of antisemitic, anti-Christian and anti-western jihadist extremists and terrorist attacks (the terrible beheading of a hostage, the haunting telephone conversation of someone trapped in the twin towers in New York, a banner saying "Freedom go to Hell"), leading on to an alarmist presentation of Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and Europe. It concludes with statements such as "Islam seeks to destroy our Western civilisation" and "Stop Islamisation", before fading out to the sounds of a ticking bomb and thunder. So by implication it makes a three part equation: Islam = terrorism = immigration.
Each of the three elements, the implicit "=" signs between them, and the intentions behind the whole film all need to be unpicked. The Dutch prime minister says "we believe it serves no purpose other than to cause offence". That may do as a politician's formulaic condemnation, but at least three other purposes are discernible: to inflame debate on issues about which Wilders is passionate, even fanatical, and that do deeply exercise a lot of Dutch people; to get more of them to vote for his political party, which already has nine of the 150 seats in Holland's lower house; and to garner worldwide publicity for a thoroughly modern populist.
One possible response to the first element - quotations from the Qur'an - has been suggested by the Jewish Dutch television producer Harry de Winter, who says you can find sentences on violently abusive of homosexuals, women and non-Jewish preachers in the Jewish Torah, and that if the film had been made about Jews it would be antisemitic. So we could respond, polemically, with a Wilders-style selection from the Torah, or from the whole of the Old Testament. More soberly, one would weigh the question how the peace-loving and the bellicose passages in the Qur'an are balanced in current mainstream Muslim interpretations of the Qur'an compared with, say, mainstream Christian interpretations of the Bible; for with all these polyphonic mystery books, the interpretation is everything.
The second element of Fitna is the least original, but makes the most valid point. We cannot be reminded too often that there are takfiri jihadist men of violence out there bent on killing us - including their fellow Muslims - and destroying our freedoms in the name of Islam. To say "this has nothing to do with Islam" is almost as stupid as it is to say, with Wilders, "Islam is this". I believe Muslim men and women of peace are called upon to address this question, even when it is asked by a man like Wilders. "Muslims must think about the fear generated by their religion," says Dutch deputy minister Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim.
The third part of the film, against Muslim immigration, is at once the most poisonous and potentially the most effective. Wilders is a man making a successful political career by saying what many Europeans think. Last summer, as well as calling for the Qur'an to be banned, he wrote "not one more Muslim immigrant should be let in" and "there should not be even one more mosque". Here it is particularly for non-Muslim Europeans to emphasise the self-evident fact that the vast majority of Muslims want to live in peace, raise their kids, save some money, obey the laws of the land, watch the football - and believe that nothing in their religion prevents them from doing so.
This is how a mature free society responds to such a film. Not by appeasement of murderers, not by censorship, and not simply by blanket condemnation. Let the majority ignore it - as they seem to have done so far, and heaven knows there are better things to do with your time - and let a minority of those interested engage with it (for my sins, I've watched it three times), take it apart, argue with it, reveal its game, refute the refutable and accept the irrefutable, separating those specks of truth from the fat turds of falsehood.
[Captured: 10 April 2008 23:31:23]