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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."

It is an ironic turn for the Netherlands, with its record of religious pluralism and assimilation dating from the seventeenth century. Historian John Marshall of Johns Hopkins University calls Dutch toleration "remarkable" and "unmatched" by other societies. Political and religious dissenters of every type--fleeing Catholic torture chambers in France, Anglican prisons in England, or Calvinist crackdowns in Switzerland--found sanctuary. Jews experienced greater freedom of worship in the Netherlands than in any other country on the continent. Two of Europe's greatest advocates for religious liberty, John Locke and Pierre Bayle, wrote their definitive works while in exile in Holland in the 1680s. Locke marveled at how Arminians, Baptists, Lutherans, Quakers, and others "quietly permit one another to choose their way to heaven."

All of this was possible because the Dutch republic, established after the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, defined its national identity in opposition to religious persecution. Political leaders came to believe that the best route to civic peace and economic growth was a hands-off approach to religious expression--as long as it did not threaten the public good. "The powers under whom we live permit all Christians to serve God according to the dictates of their conscience," wrote Jean Le Clerc, the Amsterdam theologian who first published Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. "We shall in some measure imitate the equity of the magistrates in reporting without prejudice the views of all Christian societies."

No wonder the Dutch, like many other nations in Europe, struggle with a raging identity crisis. Their magistrates are losing sight of the democratic principle of equity, that is, equal justice under the law. They mistake sectarian enclaves for religious pluralism. They accept a bloated and corrupt welfare state as social justice. They turn tolerance into anything-goes morality. In their secularism, they cannot distinguish between religious conviction and religious absolutism. "The main difference with America is that being religious is absolutely not mainstream," Van Dommelen says. "De facto, the standard is to be a nonbeliever."

The coalition government and others remain at odds over what do to about the Wilders film. The Christian Democrats favor a ban, while Labour defends freedom of expression. The prime minister warns of security problems and economic boycotts, and is looking for a legal way to stop its release. In January, a U.S. military task force in Afghanistan posted website commentary warning that the film could undercut local support for foreign troops (a post that was subsequently removed). Dutch forces in Afghanistan, where angry demonstrations have occurred, are reportedly bracing for the worst. As one soldier complained to a Dutch journalist: "As if we have nothing better to do."

Free speech is a touchstone of democratic societies, as is freedom of religion. Sometimes these rights clash, but a just state strives to uphold them both. It apparently doesn't occur to Dutch elites that when government takes sides in religious questions--under the banner of free speech--it undermines democratic freedom. When it attacks people on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion, it lights a match. The fiery result is called Fitna, and it's coming to a theater near you.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online. His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.