Geert Wilders in the Dock

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of Z Word

Last March, the right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders released a film about Islam entitled Fitna, an Arabic term which refers to civil strife. Unable to find a broadcaster because of the film’s blanket condemnation of Islam, Wilders ended up posting it on the internet. As Elif Kayi reported at the time, there were angry demonstrations around the world, including in Afghanistan, where Dutch troops were stationed with the NATO force. But the apocalypse did not come.

Nearly one year later, a Dutch court has overturned an earlier decision by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and decided to prosecute Wilders. The three judges in the Amsterdam Appeals Court said that “they had weighed Mr Wilders’s ‘one-sided generalisations’ against his right to free speech, and ruled that he had gone beyond the normal leeway granted to politicians.”

It hardly needs saying that Fitna – which you can watch here – is an awful film. To the dramatic strains of Tchaikovsky and Grieg, Wilders strings together fire and brimstone suras from the Qu’ran with footage of terrorist atrocities, Islamist preachers in full-throated antisemitic rants and even the gruesome beheading of a western hostage in Iraq. This, he wants you to believe, is the essence of the Islamic faith. And it’s coming to a street corner near you.

In case you’re not convinced, about ten minutes into the film there’s a shot of a burqa-clad woman pushing a toddler in a stroller down a quiet Dutch street. This is immediately followed by a graph which demonstrates the unstoppable rise of the Muslim population in The Netherlands. The path from theology to demography is not one that Wilders has much trouble in negotiating. As he said in a particularly inflammatory speech in Jerusalem, “From now on the motto of my party will be: ‘it’s demographics, dumbo.’”

Not unreasonably, some of Wilders critics see parallels between his film and the insidious tactics of antisemitic propagandists. You can also situate it in a broader tradition of scare films which predicate the future health of society on its ability to deal with the One Big Threat in its midst. In my view, Fitna is reminiscent of, and about as credible as, “Reefer Madness,” a 1936 movie financed by a church group in the US which carried the message that a single puff on a marijuana joint would send you spiraling downwards into murder, rape and mayhem.

But should he be prosecuted? It’s hard to make the case that the film is just a critique of Islamic theology; it invites the viewer to dislike Muslims as well, to regard them as a threat we would all be better off without. It is a racist film, for sure. Yet there is no exhortation to violence, no explicit call to deport Muslims, nothing that would make a court case watertight when it comes to a seamless link between hate speech and hate crime.

One of the grounds for prosecution lies, according to the court statement, in the “comparisons between Islam and Nazism made by Wilders.” At the conclusion of Fitna, a text scrolls up the screen announcing that just as Nazism was defeated in 1945 and communism defeated in 1989, “Now, the Islamic ideology has to be defeated.” Back in 2007, Wilders called for the Qu’ran to be banned, comparing it, for good measure, with Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

I don’t believe that anyone should be prosecuted for stupidity or grotesque offensiveness. I accept that others, including members of the judiciary, may disagree with me. If they do, though, then they need to be consistent.

If Wilders is to be prosecuted for comparing Islam with Nazism, then why not prosecute those who march through Amsterdam carrying banners equating the Star of David with the swastika? Why not prosecute the Dutch Socialist MP Harry van Bommel, who paraded along an Amsterdam street chanting the word “intifada” while a crowd behind him roared “Hamas, Hamas, Joden aan het gas!” (”Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!”). Why not drag the execrable Gretta Duisenberg into the dock? This is a woman who has declared her “understanding” of suicide bombing, who has wondered aloud whether Jews are taking over South Amsterdam in the same way as they are taking over the West Bank and who giggled, when asked how may signatures she wanted on a pro-Palestinian petition, the answer “six million.” Why Wilders and not Duisenberg?

My point is that prosecuting Wilders is going to lead to an inevitable, and – for the Dutch especially – uncomfortable row about double standards and the legal process. Moreover, Wilders, is bound to make the argument that his prosecution is the best evidence for his claims about “Islamisation.” Far better, surely, to fight it out in the realm of ideas, as was done, to take one example, here.