What We Learned from Fitna
I wouldn't want to tempt fate by suggesting that the storm over Geert Wilders' Koran-bashing movie Fitna has passed, but the signs are encouraging.
While reaction to the film from Muslim groups and Islamic countries has been predictably hostile, there have so far been no reports of violence linked to the film.
Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia led the protests in the Muslim world, and the film was criticized by the European Union and by Dutch politicians. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said there were "major concerns" that the film could "lead to reactions that endanger public order, security and the economy", but Wilders' countrymen at least defended his right to free speech. The movie was also condemned by no less a figure than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who called it "offensively anti-Islamic".
Whether Mr Ban or any of the film's other high-profile critics actually saw the film isn't clear.
Of course, the film's release could still be exploited by extremists - the British-based web-hosting company LiveLeak was forced to remove the film from its servers after receiving threats to its employees. However, the general consensus is that Fitna isn't as controversial as some reports had suggested it would be. Hopefully cool heads will continue to prevail - and if they do we'll be left to wonder what all the fuss was about.
The 17-minute film which, despite LiveLeak, can still be found on Google Video and on various other websites and blogs, juxtaposes passages from the Koran with footage of attacks by Islamic terrorists, including 9/11 and the London and Madrid bombings; clips of anti-Western demonstrations in Muslim countries and extremists making inflammatory states; and ominous predictions about the Islamification of Europe.
There's little in the film that's new or surprising, although some of the images are fairly graphic. Nobody disputes that terrorist attacks are being carried out around the world by people claiming to act in the name of Islam. But while many commentators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, accuse the terrorists of hijacking Islam for their nefarious ends, Wilders' contention is that these terrorists are simply doing what the Koran exhorts them to do.
These arguments have been well-rehearsed. So why the outrage? The views expressed in the film are no different to those expressed in countless blog posts, and there are plenty of films on the internet that are as provocative, if not more so. What's significant is that the controversy began when talk about the film left the confines of the blogosphere and entered the mainstream media, and it's a fact that appears to bear out Wilders' complaint about the reluctance of Western governments and the media to discuss the issues his film raises.
In a recent interview for the UK's Spectator magazine, Wilders hypothesised on the response of European governments were he to make a film critical of Christianity:
Would there be extra meetings of the government? Would there be evacuation plans of our embassies in Rome, Berlin and Brussels? Would there be bishops like grand muftis who say there would be bloodshed?... The answer of course is "no". So it proves my point already. All the reactions of the Islamic world, even unfortunately from the Dutch government, show that Islam is something different, has to be treated differently, as something entirely beside our own culture and values.'
The point Wilders feels has been proved is one that's long been made by many columnists, bloggers and other commentators who believe radical Islam poses a threat to the West: that our political and media elites either avoid talking about difficult issues relating to Islam - whether terrorism or the failure of Muslim immigrants to integrate into Western society - or apply a double standard that's the product partly of intimidation by extremists, and partly of the corrosive effects of political correctness and multiculturalism. And whatever you think of the specific accusations Wilders levels against Islam, it's hard to disagree with his claim that these wider issues aren't getting a fair hearing.
In the same way that far-right political parties have attracted increasing support in some European countries because indigenous communities believe the welfare of Muslim immigrants is being put before their own concerns, the timidity of the Western media has created a market for far-right polemicists like Wilders (who of course is also a politician) on the internet. As Mark Steyn wrote at The Corner "...a film such as Fitna might not even be necessary were the western news organizations not so absurdly deferential toward Muslim sensibilities that they go out of their way to avoid showing us anything that might cause us to link violence with Islam."
But the debate about Wilders' unremarkable film generated enough momentum to break out of the blogosphere. Whether or not Wilders intended things to work out this way, millions of people who would never have heard of Fitna , or Geert Wilders, have now seen the film. More significantly, stories portraying Islam as angry and intolerant, and Western institutions as indulgent and submissive, are on every TV news bulletin and website, and on the front pages of newspapers. The politicians and news organisations are being forced to engage in the very discussion they've sought to avoid and, like the Islamists, they're none too pleased: hence the ‘outrage'.
Much of Wilders' criticism is directed mainly at the Dutch government, but it could equally be directed at the political/legal/media establishments of any of the other nations in Europe that are struggling with disaffected Muslim minorities and terrorist threats (although in fairness to Denmark, sections of that establishment have been fairly robust in its defence of the Mohammed cartoonists). And the issues he raises also have implications for countries beyond Europe - Australia, Canada and ultimately the United States.
Goings-on in the Netherlands are being watched with particular interest in Britain, which has a long-standing reputation as a soft-touch for Islamic extremists. And there can be no better example of the reluctance to confront radicalism identified by Wilders than the recent decision by the UK government to stop using the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism' altogether, and instead refer to terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims as ‘un-Islamic activity'.
It's simply the latest manifestation of the notion that Islamic terrorism ‘has nothing to do with Islam'.
Such obfuscation is also regularly employed by sections of the British media, who go out of their way to avoid using the ‘M' word in stories that might reflect badly on Islam, whether reporting on terrorist attacks or cultural issues such as honour killings. When, recently, newspapers and broadcasters reported government concerns that ‘Asian' teenagers were being forced into arranged marriages, one commenter was moved to point out that: "Bradford does NOT have a substantial Asian population, it has a substantial MUSLIM population. It really annoys Hindus and Sikhs that we're always put in the same boat."
The double standard also manifests itself when the sensitivities of other religions - most often Christianity - come under assault. The BBC, for example, whose softly-softly approach to all matters Islam is legendary, had no problem with screening Jerry Springer: The Opera which featured Jesus wearing a nappy and pretending to be gay, despite protests from Christian groups. Few artists, on the other hand, have been willing to address the subject of Islam, extreme or otherwise - the authors Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis are two notable exceptions. More typical is the attitude of cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry, whose work features sexual and religious imagery, and who admitted in an interview with the UK Times that he would never risk offending Muslims. He has a point - writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Peter Hoekstra contrasted the reaction of Muslims to Wilders' film and other perceived slights to that of US Christians similarly provoked:
In 1989, when so-called artist Andres Serrano displayed his work "Piss Christ" - a photo of a crucifix immersed in a bottle of urine - Americans protested peacefully and moved to cut off the federal funding that supported Mr. Serrano. There were no bombings of museums. No one was killed over this work that was deeply offensive to Christians.
Nor, Hoekstra might have added, was Mr Serrano denounced by the heads of the United Nations and the European Union.
Most observers, even those who blame the West for some of Islam's problems, agree that initiatives to counter the radicalisation of Muslims need to come largely from within Islam itself. But reform is unlikely to happen as long as Western governments and the media continue to make excuses for, or ignore completely, extremist behaviour. After all, if we won't acknowledge that there's a problem, why should they? If Wilders' intention was not primarily to draw attention to the threat posed by radical Islam, but rather to draw attention to the failure to acknowledge and respond to the threat, then he's succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.