In Defense of Geert Wilders
Everyone deserves the freedom to offend
When discussing—and, in this case, defending—radical Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, it is de rigueur to begin with emphatic caveats and disclaimers. Mr. Wilders, a fulminating critic of Islam and advocate of closing Holland's borders to further immigration, is something of an extremist, a man with whom most will find difficulty attaining common ideological ground. The Koran, he says, is a Hitlerian text ("Ban that wretched book like Mein Kampf is banned!"). To those who contend that radical Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution, Wilders scoffs: "Moderate Islam does not exist." Mohammad, he says, was a "terrorist" and "war-criminal." And so on.
Now Wilders, whose Freedom Party holds just five seats in the Dutch Parliament, has boiled his hatred of Islam down into a ten minute film called Fitna—variously translated in the media as the Arabic word for "strife," "challenge," or "chaos." The film, which has not been released, will doubtless be a retread of Wilders' reductive reading of the Koran. Regardless of the substance of the film, and however much one disagrees with his interpretation, Wilders should be defended, without reservation, by free speech advocates both in Holland and abroad; a position made even more necessary considering the lukewarm defense proffered by Western governments and intellectuals.
In response to the controversy surrounding Fitna, Wilders' website was knocked offline by his American host, Network Solutions; he has been repeatedly denounced by the government of Jan Peter Balkenende as a liability to Dutch "interests"; the country's shriveled monarch, Queen Beatrix, admonished that free speech doesn't allow one the right to offend; and last week 1000 "anti-racism" activists protested Fitna in Amsterdam's city center. As one demonstrator told Reuters, "There should be restrictions on what Wilders can say… it is a very bad example to people to let him say whatever he wants." Similar demonstrations on behalf of free speech and the freedom to mock, insult, and defame religion have yet to materialize.
Rather than assigning blame to the knuckle-dragging troglodytes who have threatened Wilders and Dutch commercial and diplomatic interests abroad, many have warned of an inevitable "blowback" from indignant Muslim masses. Addressing the European parliament, the Grand Mufti of Syria told his audience that "If there is unrest, bloodshed and violence after the broadcast of the Koran film, Wilders will be responsible." Prime Minister Balkenende sighed that in Holland such statements were indeed legal, "but there is the possibility, once the film is released, that there will be a court case." Dutch state radio produced a YouTube video chronicling the journey of a concerned Muslim who wonders why Wilders wasn't simply arrested and prosecuted. The Netherlands Islamic Federation has petitioned a court in The Hague to set up a censor board that could adjudicate on whether the film should be banned.
That Wilders possesses extremist views, that his interpretation of Islam is both reductive and puerile, is of no particular relevance in this case, unless one subscribes to the view that there exists an arbitrary boundary between right to free speech and freedom from offense. Once Fitna is broadcast—either via non-state television or the Internet—it is incumbent upon on those who value a society where freedom of expression is respected, and a society free of intimidation against those who question the probity of prophets, to engage the film on its intellectual merits.
But two great, and often unspoken, fears are governing the reaction to Wilders, ones that were similarly made plain during the so-called Danish cartoon crisis. First, it is important for members of both Europe's mainstream and radical left not to be seen as endorsing the views of a hard right politician, even if they make clear that they are merely defending the right to free expression. Second, despite Europe's deeply held secularism, Muslim immigrants are often, in both media and parliamentary debate, seperated from their religion, reclassified in a purely racial (or "other") context. In Sweden, when the controversial "Ecce Homo" photography exhibit premiered in 1998, which depicted Jesus as suffering from AIDS and featured leather-clad priests having sex inside a church, it came under sustained fire from Christian leaders. The country's editorial pages circled the wagons in defense of the artist's right to offend. Those very same pages, though, denounced Jyllands-Posten's Mohammad cartoons as gratuitous, distasteful, and offensive. None reprinted the drawings.
In Holland, the situation is similar. The reaction of the pathetic and spineless Balkenende government is typified by Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen. In an interview with Dutch state television, Verhagen bellowed that it would be "irresponsible to broadcast this film. That's because Dutch companies, Dutch soldiers and Dutch residents could and will be in danger." This is, as the Danish example suggests, doubtless true, though to do so is to blithely submit to the blackmail and gangsterism of Islamic militancy.
In focusing on Wilders' very real extremism, Western critics risk missing the larger point of the recent religious crises in Europe; from the scribbling of the Danish cartoonists to the alleged blasphemy of novelist Salman Rushdie. To suggest that it is simply Wilders' particular vision of Islam, the harshness of his language, with which his enemies disagree is foolish. To think that, for instance, a documentary version of Christopher Hitchens' best-selling and thoughtful anti-religion book God is Not Great, focusing only on the sections critical of Islam and broadcast on European state television, would not produce a similar backlash—or threatened backlash—is wishful thinking. Again, one only need think back to the vile fatwa that hamstrung the life of Mr. Rushdie to understand that it takes very little—a largely unread novel—to drive the ultra-pious into a murderous rage.
But it is also important that we not allow the chest-thumping histrionics of America's talk show circuit to reduce the Wilders affair to one of moderate critic versus those opposed to freedom of speech. On his Headline News television program, conservative radio host Glenn Beck, after first mischaracterizing Wilders (whom he referred to as "Gilt Whatshisface") as merely "critical of extremist Islam," sputtered about the "censorship" of Fitna's American web host, Network Solutions. It bears repeating that Network Solutions is a private company and is thus securely within its rights to suspend the accounts of any client with whom it isn't interested in doing business. Threats to free speech come not from private companies acting in their own self-interest, but from both governments and those who desire to silence heterodox—and yes, extreme—voices with implicit or explicit threats of violence.
Islamic extremists have been depressingly successful in frightening the Netherlands into assuming that a short film of little consequence will precipitate hideous amounts of "retaliatory" violence. And herein lies an important lesson for other religious crackpots, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Wiccan. Full protection of "prophets" and deities can be attained by repeated, credible threats of violence. And to not support Wilders, alas, is to acquiesce to such bullying.
Michael Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.