Media Molehill

After all the Hype, Geert Wilders’ Anti-Islam Film Offended Far Fewer Than He Had Hoped

For those still morbidly curious, the long-awaited day had come. After months of squabbling over what to do with Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam documentary Fitna, it was finally released on Mar. 27 on Liveleak.com – and then promptly taken off its servers.  The last website willing to air the contentious piece claimed the film’s removal marked “a sad day for freedom of speech,” but the risks of speaking freely were simply too great.

The 15-minute clip received its 24 hours of glory and granted Wilders an undeserved spot in the center of attention. Now, with any luck, both will disappear from the media as quickly as they came.

Fitna, meaning “strife” in Arabic, promised to prove once and for all that Islam is synonymous with bloodshed. The patchwork of terrorist attack footage interlaced with fragmentary Koranic verses was unconvincing at best and its lack of original content pitiable. It was reminiscent of the days directly after 9/11 when American news networks had first awoken to the notion of Islam, desperately fumbling to make sense of a culture they knew nothing about. Fitna’s sensationalism failed even to rouse the much-feared violence Wilders assured was so central to Muslim existence.

Many struggled even to take offense. “On the contrary, if we leave out the first images and the sound of the page being torn,” a Libyan cleric was quoted in the Financial Times, “it could be a film by the Mujahideen.”

But despite his apparent failure as a propagandist, Geert Wilders is no newcomer to the wonderful world of populism. The anti-immigrant parliamentarian has advocated for the deportation of Dutch Muslims and the outlaw of the “fascist” Koran, purporting that the book alone “incites hatred and killing.”

Hatred, it ironically seems, is exactly what the Dutchmen hoped to incite with his latest publicity stunt. Fitna bought Wilders an interview with Fox News where he asserted, among other wild claims, that Muslim cultures would need 2,000 to 3,000 years to catch up to the highly superior West. Even his interviewer labeled his views “outrageous,” quite a compliment from America’s favorite liberal-bashing news station. Characteristic of many Fox News interviewees, such negligence of cultural relativism demonstrates an ignorance of religion, history, and common sense – or simply an insistence on standing in the limelight, no matter the cost.

But despite Wilders’ convictions, Muslims in Holland and elsewhere are proving to be more civilized than this bleached-blond politician. Mar. 27 was marked with a conspicuous calm, as Dutch Imams called for peace throughout Holland. Pakistan temporarily banned YouTube, Iran threatened mayhem would ensue, and much of Europe stood embraced for a repetition of the Jyllands-Posten controversy, when published cartoons of Muhammad provoked riots across Europe that later escalated, leaving many dead.

But this time, the promised carnage never materialized. Perhaps the silence signals a new age in West-Muslim relations. Or maybe we have all matured to a point that we no longer view rouge characters as representative of larger communities. In the end, most Europeans wish to be associated with Geert Wilders as much as Saudis wish to be connected to the hijackers of 9/11. Though infuriating, Wilders’ only true significance lies in his ability to incite the marginal, uneducated fringes of Dutch society, who have grown weary of the growing Muslim population and stand helpless in the face of his populist rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the West remains embroiled in an additional kind of anxiety. Europe has become infatuated with defending its rights, while at the same time fretting about the dangerous of advocating them. Would a ban on Wilders’ film infringe upon an individual’s right to free speech? Should the right of free speech be upheld at the risk of terrorist attacks? Does a ban on the headscarf violate freedom of religion, or protect European secularism? All valid questions, no doubt, but not questions that can assume immediate answers.

The bigger question, perhaps, should be why menacing politicians aren’t removed from office, but such a statement will inevitably spark an equally futile debate about infraction of democracy. Of course we need free speech, of course we need democracy, and of course neither should come at the expense of human lives. But in an imperfect world, we can’t expect to have it all. The worst part of this debate, perhaps, is the unnecessary publicity it awards the likes of Wilders; the media blew the issue out of proportion and consequently infuriated Muslims around the world.

But the media scares have proven fruitless, and peace, so far, has prevailed. And in this case it seems the free market, for once, took care of a problem for us; Liveleak and other private companies chose not to continue to air the film, not because of a government ban but out of fear for their staff’s safety.

Though that fear may have been exaggerated, in the end, it is a company’s right to decide what it does, and does not, offer its customers.  In the end, individuals have an equal amount of freedom – when choosing what they read, what they watch, and who they vote for. And as long as those freedoms exist, individuals like Wilders will hold office, and documentaries like Fitna will, for better or for worse, be produced.

But how dangerous are they if we simply choose to ignore them?

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