So the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders has had his Warholian 15 minutes of fame. And he has released his film Fitna (which runs just over 15 minutes) on the Internet before 1 April. What a missed opportunity!
Imagine, if on 1 April, Wilders had released a video showing only a rolling caption: “Fooled you! There is no film. I want to make a point: that the West has lost the will to stand up for freedom of expression. I threatened to release a film, and prime ministers and parliamentarians raced to denounce me and my decision, saying I was insulting a faith, saying freedom went with responsibility, that I must not offend. But look, I have nothing to say — this was but a joke, on you, the leaders of the Western world, who claim to be standing up for freedom, democracy and human rights. When the going gets tough, you blink; when it is time to stand up for cherished freedoms, you surrender to the hotheads, the imams, the keepers of Islamic faith, who claim their followers would feel offended, and would attack your cities. When the crunch comes, you give up. When the ground tilted, you wilted.”
That would have been a powerful act, exposing the pusillanimity of world leaders. Instead, he released his jaw-droppingly boring film. It shows familiar images of planes disintegrating into the twin towers of the World Trade Center; the mangled trains of Madrid; the shattered bus in London; sordid images of wounded and dead Western civilians (indeed, no Bali or Mumbai); jihadists beheading Western hostages; assorted bearded clerics declaring Islam’s victory over the West; more assorted, bearded clerics saying nasty things about Jews; a small veiled girl calling Jews “pigs”; blood-splattered children and their parents smiling after having flagellated themselves following a religious ritual; gays facing execution; the controversial Danish cartoons; some verses from the Quran which call for violence against unbelievers; and a bar chart showing how Muslim population in the Netherlands has increased from nearly nothing a century ago to close to a million. The images are shoddy; the camera work so amateurish it would make Al Qaeda videos on Al Jazeera look like smart Hollywood productions. Maybe Allah is merciful after all, for Fitna runs only 15 minutes. Anything longer, and I’d have gone to sleep.
And then what? Would the terrorists have won? That is where this debate has reached, such is the binary nature of the world we live in. Defending freedom of expression requires that you defend what Woody Allen once called everyone’s right to be a schmuck. And today, it is Wilders’ turn to be defended. It shows our collective cowardice that when Wilders said he’d release his film, the world got into a tizzy. Charming bean-counters, who tote up costs and benefits of freedom, pointed out the danger of violence, how innocent lives must be protected, and why one must not provoke militants. But that means we value our freedoms less. Worse, it means assuming “Muslims” can only act irrationally, so the “civilized” world must protect them from being offended. This is exceptionally patronizing to Muslims.
Some lunatics have already burnt two cars in Utrecht as I write this, and there will be more. The accountants will balance the benefit of Wilders’ freedom with the cost of irate Muslims burning Dutch flags (and probably French and Luxembourgeoise flags, since professional agitators are not erudite vexillophiles who can tell flags apart). Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad has asked Muslims to boycott Dutch products. Dutch businesses are considering suing Wilders. That’s like blaming a woman who has been molested for wearing a suggestive dress. Benjamin Franklin rightly said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The Netherlands is the home of tolerance and freedom. You can’t but admire its liberal atmosphere. The red light area isn’t criminalized, and coffee shops openly sell soft drugs. In that environment, Theo van Gogh felt safe enough to make a film, Submission, based on a script by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which was sharply critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Mohammed Bouyeri, an Amsterdam-born Dutch national of Moroccan origin, murdered van Gogh and threatened Hirsi Ali. Since then, astonishingly, the Dutch have withdrawn police protection for Hirsi Ali, citing costs, giving the idea of “going Dutch” a new meaning. And now, the Dutch government reminded Wilders that with freedom comes responsibility.
Wilders’ point, however crudely put, is just that: the vast distance the Dutch have travelled from their own values. So, two decades after the fatwa on The Satanic Verses, instead of reaffirming free speech, Europe is figuring out ways of circumscribing it.
Here’s what I did in response: For the pizza I made for my sons, I used cumin-enriched Dutch cheese. My next light bulbs will be from Philips. Will the Dutch reciprocate with some of their famed courage in return?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org