*Cross-posted from The Nation.
Feared, condemned sight-unseen and praised as a celebration of free speech, Fitna, a seventeen-minute film by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, appeared on the Internet in late March. Fitna is a bombastic, bloody montage linking terrorist violence to Koranic texts. It resembles the videos Iraqi insurgents use to fete and cultivate suicide bombers. This convergence of visual vocabularies is no accident. Like insurgent propaganda, Fitna aims to embolden the extremes to the detriment of the moderate middle. It seeks to affirm Samuel Huntington’s pernicious vision of clashing civilizations by inviting violent responses from radicals, by forcing moderate Muslims into unpleasant choices between national loyalties and religious beliefs, and by reinforcing prejudicial views of Islam as unfit for civilized living.
Wilders has long shown himself to be a master of political manipulation, so it is a (welcome) surprise that Fitna has proved a dud so far. The 44-year-old Wilders was first elected to Parliament on the ticket of the conservative Partij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (Party for Freedom and Democracy) in 1998. In September 2004 he broke away to instigate his own Partij voor de Vrijheid, which now has nine representatives in the 150-member Parliament. Wilders’s move capitalized on two sources of tension in Dutch politics. He articulated latent discontent with the comfy left-right coalition dominating the political scene. And he played on insecurities stemming from growing economic uncertainty, the sense of being submerged by a European superstate and, above all, concern about the longstanding Dutch commitment to “multiculturalism” after 9/11.
Patterned on the “pillar” system that long gave Protestant and Catholic communities separate universities, unions, media and even hospitals, Dutch multiculturalism led to separate Muslim schools and welfare systems and state-sponsored mosques. After 9/11 this multiculturalist ideal, and Dutch Muslims in particular, fell under a harsh glare. Politicians and critics like Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh simply tapped into a seam of febrile discontent. A study conducted by Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn found that by 1998 a solid third of Dutch citizens already held deeply prejudicial views against Muslims.
Seeking political fame, Wilders only had to cast match to tinder. In August 2007 he published an op-ed in de Volkskrant calling for a ban on the Koran. In case anyone mistook him for a moderate who distinguished between Muslims based on their views of political violence, Wilders began by stating flatly that “moderate Islam does not exist.” And the core of “fascistic Islam” is “set down in the Islamic Mein Kampf: the Koran.” His call for banning the Koran logically built on his proposal a month earlier to punish anyone wearing a burqa in public with twelve days in prison. Fitna is thus merely the most recent in an escalating series of stunts aimed at humiliating and scapegoating Muslims. But the latest spark has failed to catch.
Echoing responses to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten 's cartoons about Muhammad, the fiercest reactions to Fitna came from Islamic governments and factions far from Europe. Before the film was released, the Syrian Grand Mufti, Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, thundered about “violence and bloodshed” that would ensue. After the film’s release, Iran called on the Dutch government to ban it. And the Pakistani Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami organized protests in Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and Quetta.
Iranian, Syrian and Pakistani Islamists are united by their common failure to provide their constituencies with basic goods, finding it easier to fob off their supporters with religious self-righteousness. Thus it’s not unlikely that Pakistan will see further protests. The Islamist party coalition of which Jamaat-e-Islami is part collapsed in Pakistan’s March 18 election from fifty-six to five seats in the national assembly, thanks to its incompetence and close ties to the hated President Musharraf. For them, making Fitna an issue is a win-win strategy.
Wilders’s effort to spark division failed, by contrast, in the Netherlands itself, which can largely be explained by the growing political maturity and savvy of Europe’s Muslim minorities. In the United States, clichés abound about “Europe’s Angry Muslims” (as a July/August 2005 Foreign Affairs article warned). But shrill alarms about brown boys with bombs in backpacks shed only misleading and partial light on a complex story of integration, insularity, conflict against prejudice and successful political mobilization.
More than in the United States, Muslims across Europe engage with their governments, run for office and argue their cases vigorously in the public domain. In a 2005 study, Brandeis University political scientist Jytte Klausen showed that Muslims are deeply and seriously involved in the mucky, boring task of daily democracy in town halls and parliaments across Europe. Organizations that form liaisons between the state and Muslim minorities, such as the Dutch Islam en Burgerschap, founded in 1996, have also helped give Muslims a legitimate presence and voice in public debate. Wilders is too late: European Muslims are already part of liberal democracy.
Ignoring these inconvenient facts, commentators on the Anglo-American right have been quick to seize on the Fitna incident as evidence that, as Christopher Caldwell wrote in a January Financial Times op-ed, “We have more religious pluralism than the western liberal system was designed to cope with.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal in March, Representative Peter Hoekstra echoed this, conjuring a “broad and determined” fifth column in Europe seeking to “reject the basic values of modern civilization.”
It’s more than a little ironic that commentators such as Caldwell and Hoekstra invoke free speech as talismanic of the good West and anathema to uncivilized Islam as they pass in discreet silence over Wilders’s call for censorship of the Koran. This is not to suggest that Fitna should be banned. Fitna's cruel, stupid generalizations about Islam are deeply distasteful, as is its exploitation of images of falling bodies on 9/11. But while free speech may give refuge to scoundrels, it matters greatly to unpopular minorities seeking to surface unpleasant truths about domestic and foreign policies.
Still, sometimes the best cure for bad speech is not more speech. It is to shrug, to set the rubbish aside and to get back to the difficult, tedious business of finding ways for different people to live together.