The Fitna Debacle: Extremists Gone Wild

The pre-release buzz for a controversial movie is rarely the occasion for a security alert at foreign embassies, but right-wing Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders’ Fitna has been in a category all its own since he first hinted in November he would make a film about the Qur’an.

For one thing, Fitna can hardly be called a movie: It is 16-minutes of strung-together old footage, interlaced with Qur’anic quotations, with production values that are one step down from your teenage cousin’s YouTube videos. And, for a controversial movie, Fitna has hardly delivered: while negative reviews and official condemnations have poured in from around the world, the movie failed to accomplish what seemed to be Wilders’ main intention—sparking “Cartoons Controversy II” and thereby proving for once and for all that Muslims are violent, irrational and freedom-hating.

So how to respond to such a film? Some critics made a reasonable case that the public should simply ignore the film, and defeat Wilders’ Ann Coulter-like publicity grab; Dutch Jewish leaders called it “counterproductive,” and a prominent Jewish TV producer even compared Wilders’ movie to Nazi anti-Semitism. Others have critiqued its absurdities, like the Saudi blogger who responded with Schism, a video with violent verses from the Old Testament woven in among clips from Jesus Camp and images of US soldiers apparently beating detainees.

The basic arguments refuting Fitna are discouragingly familiar for being constantly repeated: not all Muslims are terrorists, Qur’anic verses do not lead directly to violence, and fears of radical Islam taking over Western nations are grossly exaggerated. Indeed, these arguments have been made so many times by so many people, one wonders: is there any point in repeating them? Wilders and those like him are apparently not interested in taking a thoughtful look at the issues. Are we naïve in thinking that acts of propaganda can be undercut by reasonable discussion? Do we risk anything in dismissing such a ham-fisted screed as unworthy of our attention?

The answers, I think, lie in watching the video itself. It is an odious prospect, to be sure. After I sat through Fitna the first time, I felt sickened, almost dirty. The video is almost pornographic in its violence, showing the victims jumping from the World Trade Center; a bearded Taliban executing a kneeling woman with a shot to the head; and an orange-jump-suit-clad contractor being beheaded by militants in Iraq. If that’s not bad enough, then come the preachers. An enraged Egyptian imam shouts, “Allah is happy when non-Muslims die!” Ahmedinejad talks about how Islam will eventually rule the world. A Palestinian preacher echoes that thought, saying, “We have ruled the world before, and by Allah, the day will come when we will rule the entire world again!”

It is a sad, depressing litany, a reel of Muslims’ worst moments from the last couple of decades. Here Wilders is not to blame, unless he can be blamed for ripping the bandages off the painful wounds some Muslims have inflicted on themselves and others. Fitna is no documentary: There is no insight, no context, nothing to help you make sense of the parade of abhorrent words and deeds. Yet the clips are a reminder that radical Islam is a reality in our world, the cause of great suffering and a threat that has not yet been overcome.

No matter how much you may dislike Wilders and his brand of Islam-hating, it is true that Muslims acting in the name of Islam flew those planes into those buildings–a fact I believe most Muslims have not yet fully digested. Just as American schoolchildren study today about slavery and the Holocaust–“Never again”–so Muslims probably can’t hang their heads too many times in contemplating the horrors committed in the name of Islam. This sentiment is not fully evoked in dry denunciations of terrorism by Muslim organizations, of which there have been many. I think what non-Muslims want most of all is to see Muslims chanting in the street to protest radical Islamic ideology–and of course no self-respecting Muslim would do that in response to demands from the likes of Wilders.

That said, I don’t think it’s hard to find some common ground with Wilders: radical Islam is a very real threat, not only to innocents who might be killed by future acts of terror, but also to Muslims around the world who might be oppressed by others enforcing their draconian views of the religion. The “martyrdom” tapes described in the current trial of British Muslim men who allegedly planned to blow up transatlantic airlines sound as chilling as anything in Wilders’ film.

The problem with the movie, then, is not the clips themselves, but the spin Wilders puts on them, arguing that Qur’anic verses are to blame, and that all Islamic faith is paired with a violent lust to conquer the world. Wilders calls on Muslims to tear “hateful verses” out of the Qur’an. In fact, Muslim reformers have made similar calls in the past–at least before they are silenced by fellow Muslims.

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, a Sudanese Muslim thinker, argued that Islam should be defined by the verses of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Mohammed early in his career, when he lived in Mecca. These “Meccan verses” tend to be more mystical, while later revelations, the “Medinan verses” tend to be more legalistic and sometimes problematic. Although Taha was executed for his views in 1985, his follower, Abdullahi An-Na’im [a member of the Religion Dispatches advisory council] has argued for bold changes in Muslim positions on human rights issues. Muslim women leaders have similarly reinterpreted and retranslated verses long held to decree the inferiority of women.

So if anything is infuriating about Wilders’ film, it’s how he (like those who promote similar ideas in the United States, including Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes) ignores Muslim reform and insists on a totalitarian vision of Islam, demanding that Muslims either rip up their scripture or admit to being terrorist sympathizers. Like Christopher Hitchens attacking belief, these voices seem to want to annihilate all forms of Islam—and that’s a tough position to reason with.

So why search for common ground with Wilders in the first place? Like the Dutch TV producer wrote, isn’t he a dangerous man promoting hatred? Is he no different from Muslim extremists who insist on seeing the world in black-and-white? It is easy to make this comparison and argue that Wilders is an extremist in his own right. But any use of that word must be balanced: Muslim terrorists and Western Islamophobes are not mirror images of each other. For all the ugliness of his views, Wilders has not been violent or called for violence, and that is a key distinction.

Wilders’ false interpretation of Islamic tradition must be engaged, and God bless those with enough patience to untangle the distortions. But such a discrediting might best begin with the recognition that Western Muslims and right-wing politicians alike face a common enemy: the doers of violence. Let’s keep our eye on the ball.