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The Latest Dutch Film Debacle

Free speech versus freedom of religion.

12:00 AM, Mar 12, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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LATER THIS MONTH, a Dutch politician is scheduled to release a film that reportedly calls for the Koran to be banished and hints that Muslims might be expelled from the Netherlands. The 15-minute production, aptly called Fitna--Arabic for "strife"--has already generated death threats, security alerts, protests, and international condemnations. A NATO commander has complained that the film could put Dutch soldiers serving in Afghanistan at special risk. The Dutch government is preparing to evacuate its citizens from Muslim countries, and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is warning government officials that "they should be prepared for everything."

The sorry fact is that Holland and much of Europe are ill-prepared for a contest against religious extremism. This latest debacle is less about Islamist militancy, however, than about the moral vertigo created by Europe's liberal and secular ideologies. European approaches to religion, pluralism, and immigration are failing miserably--and few seem to understand why or what to do about it.

Geert Wilders, the film's producer and leader of the anti-immigration Freedom party, thinks he has the answer: tighten the country's borders, ban the Koran, and clamp down on mosques and imams. Wilders has become odious to Muslims at home and abroad for comparing their sacred text to Mein Kampf and for denouncing Islam as irredeemably violent. "We should never be silent bystanders, as our freedom and civilization are eroded by the Islamization of our culture," he wrote recently in Volkskrant. Under 24-hour police protection, Wilders remains adamant: "Apparently there is no room in Islam for self-reflection and self-criticism, nor for taking responsibility and self control."

The problem with Wilders is that his "solution" requires a little self-scrutiny: He does not imagine how it might create a self-fulfilling prophecy of violent confrontation. Yes, he's right about the perverse refusal of many Muslim leaders to condemn--unambiguously--the atrocities occurring daily in the name of Islam. Yes, denunciations of his film by self-righteous muftis in Iran, Pakistan, and Syria are laughable given the repression and terror they happily endorse around the world. And it's true, as Wilder says, that "multiculturalism" has allowed religious ideas that threaten human rights to take root. The 2004 assassination of Theo Van Gogh for his film criticizing the Koran's treatment of women, for example, delivered shock therapy to a nation proud of its rationality and secular indifference to cultural and religious values.

Nevertheless, Wilders suffers from his own brand of dogmatism. He admits that most of Holland's one million Muslims are not violent theocrats-in-waiting, but he denies that there is such a thing as "moderate" Islam. What does he expect Dutch Muslims who play by the democratic rules to do in response? Tear up their Korans? "Over the years he became more and more radical," Jeroen Van Dommelen, a correspondent with NOS television based in The Hague, told me. "His latest statements in debates in parliament were that simply being a Muslim is a bad thing. To him actions are irrelevant."

Thus we have a crusade to rescue liberal democracy that would dissolve one of the foundations of democratic government, namely, the separation between church and state. By assuming the mantle of Grand Inquisitor, Wilders seeks to wield state power not only to define the belief system of an entire faith community, but also to stigmatize and criminalize it. Though no Dutch television stations have agreed to show the film unedited--Wilders plans to release it on YouTube within a couple of weeks--most everyone defends his actions as legitimate free speech.

What they're defending, however, is the alleged "right" of a government official in a modern democracy to launch a witch hunt against a religious community--regardless of whether its members are law-abiding or not. Unlike the furor two years ago over Danish cartoons satirizing Muhammad (an uproar reprised by their recent re-publication), the Wilders film represents a political agenda championed by a national lawmaker. "It is not my aim to offend people," he told a Fox News interviewer, just before triangulating. "Some people may be offended. So what the hell? It's not my problem, it's their problem."