NEW YORK ? As soon as I heard that right wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam film had been uploaded onto an internet site, I did what any self-respecting Muslim would do: I clicked on the link and prepared to be offended.
Talk about anti-climax! What happened, Geert? Like a magpie stringing cheap trinkets together, “Fitna” is a cut-and-paste affair. It tries to pass itself off as precious insight. It isn’t.
It’s not breaking news that Muslim radicals have abused the Qur’an to justify their violence. Just like Wilders, they cherry-pick their verses from the Muslim holy book to make their bloody point.
Most of us Muslims have long urged that we leave behind these verses referring to a very different time and place ? just as most Christians and Jews have moved on from verses in their holy texts that extremists still use to justify violence, slavery and misogyny.
Wilders has the right to make whatever film he wants. I defend his freedom of speech. It protects my freedom too. I would much rather err on the side of freedom than on the side of restraint, as Islamic countries recently did at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
At the urging of Egypt and Pakistan ? hardly bastions of freedoms of any kind ? the council adopted a measure that added monitoring religious prejudice to the duties of a U.N. free speech expert. Now, as well as reporting on repressive governments’ restriction of free speech, the U.N. investigator will report acts of “racial or religious discrimination” that constitute “abuse of the right of freedom of expression.”
When they pushed for the adoption of that measure, Egypt and Pakistan were going after Wilders’ film, and the 2005 Danish cartoons that upset many Muslims. I’m sure they weren’t concerned with their own domestic discrimination against religious minorities, or how their media offend and insult religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries under the guise of “freedom of speech.”
This perspective has Muslims as always the victims. It is concerned only with offense from abroad. It is not so concerned about the protestor holding up a “Death to Wilders” sign at a protest in Indonesia. Nor is it concerned with the Pakistani demonstrators chanting “kill the filmmaker.” (Exactly what Wilders wants to see and hear, because he wants to lay their careless threats of violence at the feet of all Muslims.)
So far the threats have come from militant groups whose agitation has thankfully been thus far ignored by the general public in Muslim countries. Unfortunately, that’s no guarantee that it will stay that way. After all, it was six months after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that 50 people ? most, if not all, Muslim ? were killed in riots in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
There is a good chance that “Fitna” will not spark the chaos of its name and we have Dutch Muslims to thank for that. They have learned from the Danish cartoon tragedy.
At the end of 2005, several weeks after publication, some Danish Muslim leaders took their grievances about the cartoons to the Muslim world and asked for help. In ways ever more disturbing, a bidding war seemed to break out between Muslim regimes and militant groups over who could be angrier at Denmark. (I’d say the mob who set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus won.)
How refreshing then to hear Mohammad Rabbea, head of the Dutch Moroccan National Council, urge Muslims around the world to stay calm and leave it to Dutch Muslims to determine how to react because they best knew the Netherlands and Wilders.
Displaying a mature grasp of lessons learned from the disastrous aftermath of the cartoon protests, Rabbea’s comments also hinted at a growing confidence that Dutch Muslims are willing to assert their roles as both Europeans and Muslims.
“We call on them to follow our strategy and not react with attacks on Dutch embassies or tourists,” said Rabbea, speaking at a news conference of Muslim community leaders at an Amsterdam mosque.
“An attack on the Netherlands is an attack on us,” he said. “We feel offended by the link between violence and Islam, but we know this guy [Wilders]. The best response is a response in a responsible manner.”
European Muslims know they are caught between a rock ? of right wing populists like Wilders ? and a hard place ? of radicals and terrorists responsible for the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the London bombings in 2005. The Netherlands’ own reckoning with Muslim terrorism came in 2004, when Dutch Muslim Mohammad Bouyeri shot and stabbed Theo van Gogh, who had directed a short film critical of Islam’s treatment of women.
They chose their venue well. Rabbea and other Muslim leaders held their news conference in the Elouma mosque in the largely immigrant Amsterdam neighborhood where Bouyeri grew up.
By standing up to Wilders and the right wing ? and to Muslim radicals and terrorists ? European Muslims are serving notice that they speak for themselves.
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.