How Geert Wilders’ anti-Qur’an film can be made to benefit the Muslim community

How Geert Wilders’ anti-Qur’an film can be made to benefit the Muslim community

Geert Wilders is a Dutch politician who has made a 10 minute film on the Qur’an. He says that he wants to “expose” the Qur’an, and his previous statements about the Qur’an and Islam seem to show a commitment to provocation and bigotry that make it clear that this will not be a balanced or honest film.

“The maverick politician’s remarks about Islam have become increasingly radical. In February last year he said that if Muslims wanted to stay in the Netherlands, they should tear out half of the Koran and throw it away. In parliament he then called for the Koran and Hitler’s Mein Kampf to be banned, a proposal that was rejected.” Jason Burke, The Observer 1/20/08

“Wilders has a less-than-stellar record when it comes to cultural sensitivity on the issue of Islam. He has demanded an outright ban on Islam’s holiest book, which he calls a “fascist” text. And he means it when he says ban, according to his website: “Not only the sale, but also the use in mosques and ownership in a household context should be punishable. If the current legislation does not allow that, then a new law on banning the book should be introduced. This book incites hate and murder, and therefore does not fit in with our rule of law. If Muslims want to participate, they must distance themselves from the Koran. I know that is asking a great deal, but we have to stop making concessions.”” Borzou Daragahi, L.A. Times 1/22/08

There is some question as to whether or not the film will be shown on Dutch television.

“… Up until now public radio and television stations have not appeared prepared to show this film. … If however it decides to boycott the film, Wilders can still hope to have it broadcast Nederland1 which grants political parties airtime. In this sort of programme, the party is master of the contents for three minutes. Thus, on Friday, at 5.50 pm., it will be the PVV’s turn.” Courrier International 1/22/08

“While a state-funded TV station has already recalled its promise to air the movie, Wilders, the most prominent member of the far-right Freedom Party, or VVD, has vowed to broadcast his film—on a smaller TV station or on the Internet via YouTube—whatever the pressure may be.” Stefan Nicola, Middle East Times 1/22/08

So, one way or the other Wilders seems determined to continue stirring up controversy.

Alaeddin Borujerdi, the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Chairman in Iran has expressed his concerns: “We expect the Dutch government to prevent screening of such a film. Otherwise, the Majlis MPs will call on the Iranian government to review its relations with Holland.” Tehran Times 1/22/08

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands has diplomatically expressed the Dutch Governments’ concerns: “The Netherlands has a tradition of freedom of expression and freedom of religion but also a tradition of mutual respect, and provocations do not fit into that. I call on everybody to take their individual responsibility.” Agence-France Press 1/20/08

“Dutch diplomats in Islamic nations are making clear that while the government strongly disagrees with Wilders’ extreme views, it cannot stop him expressing them. Cities across the Netherlands also are on alert for possible protests.” Associated Press 1/20/08

“The government is trying to get the message across abroad that while the famed Dutch tolerance guarantees Wilders the freedom of expression, The Hague does not support his opinions.” … “In November Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen met with Wilders personally “to point out the risks in making such a movie for himself and his entourage, and for the Netherlands and the Dutch interests abroad,” Verhagen’s spokesman Bart Rijs said.” Agence-France Press 1/18/08

Ordinary Dutch citizens have expressed their concern and disapproval of Wilders’ film. “Small and peaceful protests have already started in the Netherlands, with several activists arrested last weekend in Amsterdam for carrying placards fashioned after health warnings on a cigarette pack calling Wilders an extremist and «harmful to Dutch society.” Associated Press 1/20/08

All of this comes at the same time as a Gallup poll for the World Economic Forum (WEF) was released suggesting that most Europeans thought more interaction with Islam would be a threat. “WEF chairman Klaus Schwab said the poll pointed to “an alarmingly low level of optimism” over dialogue. … “Although some might expect the United States, Israel and the Middle East to be more likely than Europe to be threatened by the ‘other’, the opposite is the case,” the report said. “ BBC News 1/21/08

“The World Economic Forum believes that like all other global challenges, it will take the collaborative effort of all stakeholders from government, business, religion, media, academia and civil society to pre-empt any crisis, create alliances and find solutions,” said Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.” The Peninsula, Qatar 1/22/08

Surprisingly with all of this going on the same poll showed that “The Netherlands is the Western country scoring highest on the Muslim-West Dialogue Index.” Dutch News 1/22/08

In fact: “In the Netherlands, one in three residents believe relations between Muslim and western communities are improving. According to the survey, the Dutch also emerge as those who believe most strongly that the western world is committed to improve relations with Muslim societies.” James Blitz, Financial Times 1/21/08

And this controversy if it turns violent will only further erode any positive relations between Muslims and their neighbors.

“De Volkskrant writes that the Dutch woman of Turkish origin was surprised how well-informed Egyptians were about Wilders. Now his plans to make a film about the Qu’ran have led to even more attention in the Egyptian media. She says much of the image of the Netherlands is being formed by the Freedom Party leader. “While many Dutch people have an extreme image of the Muslim world, many Egyptians have the same kind of image of the Netherlands. They think it must be really awful for Muslims to live in the midst of people such as Wilders.” Frank Scimone, Radio Netherlands 1/22/08

We might consider the reasonable message of Tim Footman: “By seeking to ban the Qur’an, Wilders is aping the intolerance of the Muslim fundamentalists he seeks to oppose; by sticking to the banal mantra that if you’ve nothing nice to say, say nothing, Verhagen is in turn acting as a pale imitation of Wilders. The answer to intolerance, whether from Islamists or from western bigots with daft haircuts, is to allow them to speak, then to dismantle their arguments. Any other tactic is craven surrender, which tends to make for a lousy movie.” Tim Footman, The Guardian 1/22/08

Whether Wilders is simply a bigot or Islamophobe, or whether he is cleverly playing on the fears and insecurities existing between Europeans and their predominantly Muslim immigrant communities to promote himself and his film – the result is that he is increasing existing tensions. He has certainly succeeded in making this film which no one has seen yet into a key topic of discussion.

What can be done?

Because of Wilders’ determination to show this film one way or the other by Friday, we have very little time to avoid having this turn into another crisis with violent demonstrations and riots. Any such possible reaction from the Muslim street anywhere in the world will only add fuel to the fire that individuals like Wilders are attempting to stoke.

We know that if the film is as aggressively hostile to the Qur’an as it appears it will be, there is the very real possibility of some hotheads somewhere reacting violently. This would only play into the hands of those like Wilders who seem determined to spark a clash of civilizations, and would undermine all the very encouraging moves towards dialogue. We also know that if we can’t control the reaction to this provocation, instead of discussing the issues as to why many Muslims became upset – always seeing Islam slandered, exposed to threats, and having their Mosques vandalised – this affair will be made to seem like a “simple” matter of freedom of speech.

We have been down this road in the past with the Danish “cartoon incident”.

“An underlying assumption, often repeated by many westerners, is that it was all about freedom of press. I beg to differ with such an assertion. The cartoon controversy has little to do with freedom. Even the most diehard fanatic of freedom would agree that there is a limit to everything, including freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. So when my fist hits someone, it becomes violence and not freedom. In a civil society, Government essentially enacts laws to stop such violence.” Habib Siddiqui, The American Muslim 2/17/06

“Freedom of press is not absolute, and must be used responsibly by those who claim it. Those who appreciate the importance of free speech for maintaining free and open society must ensure that it is not used by bigots to insult, insinuate, and marginalize. Rather than expanding the critical space to talk about religion in general, and the integration of Islam to Danish society in particular, Jyllands-Poten has irresponsibly used free speech to encourage hate-mongering. Such reckless use of a cherished freedom would only make an open discussion more complicated, and could practically make Danish people less free to address critical issues for social interaction and cooperation.” Louay Safi, The American Muslim 2/9/06

“There are no legal limits to free speech, but there are civic limits. In any society, there is a civic understanding that free speech should be used wisely so not as to provoke sensitivities, particularly in hybrid, multicultural societies we see in the world today. It is a matter of civic responsibility and wisdom, not a question of legality or rights. In that context, I think it was unwise to publish these cartoons because it is the wrong way to start a debate about integration. Such a move inflames emotions; it does not court reason. It is a useless provocation.” Tariq Ramadan, The American Muslim, 2/6/06

What can be done?

Every Muslim organization needs to do their best to ask Imams to give Khutbas on Friday asking for calm and giving sound Qur’anic logic for diplomatic, and peaceful responses. We need to follow the prophet’s example in dealing with hostility.

Every Muslim needs to attempt to contact as many Imams as they know and request that they do the same. We need to focus particularly on reaching Imams overseas, particularly in Europe.

If we can respond to this provocation calmly and focus our efforts on responding to the actual film with facts, and mobilizing peaceful vigils instead of angry demonstrations, then it is possible that we can turn this situation around so that it is Mister Wilders who is embarrassed, not the worldwide Muslim community.