that anti-islam dutch film

Posted on March 28, 2008


“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”


Freedom of expression is one of the principal bases of living in an open, liberal society. We are allowed to say what we think and feel, but not without consequences, of course. Remarks or opinions judged inappropriate by society or the affected party usually have a way of coming round to haunt the utterer. Yet, we agree that in an open society, free speech is a basic right that we enjoy.

Against this backdrop, the online release of an anti-Islam, anti-Koran short film by notorious Dutch legislator Geert Wilders, should not receive the condemnation it has garnered. Wilders has a right to express what he feels, despite the efforts of some Dutch politicians to ban his film. What could be criticized, however, is the content of Wilders’ film.

Titled “Fitna,” Arabic for civil strife, the film painted Islam as violent, a religion that encouraged terrorism and provided gruesome images such as beheading and shootings in the name Islam.

While it is no secret that Islam has its extremist and violent wing, the vast majority of its practitioners are peaceful and law-abiding people. Wilders was unfair and one-dimensional in his film’s depiction of Islam. But he remained insistent.

“It is not a provocation, it is tough reality — a reality that some Muslims might not find comfortable,” Wilders — the leader of a far-right, anti-immigration Dutch political party, Party for Freedom — told the media.

His latest action comes in defiance of death threats that had been previously issued against him. Wilders has bodyguards protecting him around-the-clock.

A Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, was killed in the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamic extremist in 2004, after he released a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women.

The Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, in reflecting his country’s open and tolerant society, struck a balanced tone in handling Wilders. “The film equates Islam with violence: we reject that interpretation,” he said. “We believe it serves no purpose other than to offend. But feeling offended must never be used as an excuse for aggression and threats.”

The problem is that the radical Islamists would not take such a measured approach. Free speech is not something they would necessarily understand. This is a cultural and civilizational clash that will pit different ideologies and beliefs against each other, with devastating consequences likely. Balkenende is right to worry that Wilders’ film will not only provoke protests in Islamic countries; Dutch interests, be they soldiers, citizens or businesses, might also face backlash or even come to harm.

So it is a tough line to walk — other cultures might not understand or accept it, but we need to protect and guarantee freedom of expression. At the same time, unfortunately, managing the repercussions such as those that could be unleashed by Wilders’ film, is also going to be a tough prospect. But if it is a principle we believe strongly enough in, we must stand by it, just as Voltaire had so aptly stated.

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