Mission Accomplished for Dutch Populist: How a Film Triggered a Global Panic

By Henryk M. Broder

It is the kind of stunt that has many fearing the worst: Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders plans to release a film about Islam. Politicians worldwide are already trying to stop the project, before a single scene has been shown. Critics fear the film could lead to bloodshed in many countries.

The provocateur: Dutch politician Geert Wilders has already achieved the goals he had for his anti-Koran film before it has even been released.
REUTERS

The provocateur: Dutch politician Geert Wilders has already achieved the goals he had for his anti-Koran film before it has even been released.

Let us summarize what has happened to date. On Nov. 2, 2004, an Islamic fundamentalist murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a descendant of the painter Vincent van Gogh, in broad daylight on a street in Amsterdam.

The killer, a 26-year-old Dutch citizen, the son of Moroccan immigrants, shot the filmmaker at 9 a.m. as van Gogh was riding his bicycle. He then slit his throat and, using a knife, pinned a note to his victim's chest, claiming responsibility and explaining his motives. The killer's true target was politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But she, unlike van Gogh, was under 24-hour police protection. The bloody act was also a declaration of war against Dutch society, which, as the murderer was convinced, was controlled "by the Jews."

Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali had collaborated to produce a short film called "Submission," which uses four real-life examples to illustrate the poor treatment of women in Islam. The film was shown on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. Mosques in the Netherlands were unhappy about it, but their reactions were less vehement than expected. Van Gogh had already developed a reputation as a provocateur who paid little attention to what people thought about him -- a committed enfant terrible. He liked to refer to Muslims as "geitenneukers," or goat fuckers. He made fun of dead Jews by describing them as "copulating yellow stars in the gas chamber." He also had little regard for Christian values and symbols.

Even more than the deadly attack on "populist" Pim Fortuyn, who was shot to death by a "white Dutchman" in 2002, the van Gogh murder brought to an abrupt end the Dutch dream of a multicultural society, one in which everyone could live more or less as he pleased. From one day to the next, the Dutch realized that they had long ignored a significant problem. The country had more than a million immigrants, most of them from North Africa, who were increasingly isolating themselves from or feeling marginalized by society the longer they lived in the Netherlands.

In the November 2006 elections, the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid), which liberal politician Geert Wilders, 45, had established two years earlier, won nine of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament. Not unlike van Gogh, Wilders seems to gravitate toward conflict. He is as popular as he is controversial. His friends value him for his directness, while his enemies disparage him as a populist walking in the footsteps of murdered politician Pim Fortuyn.

Wilders, who believes that the Netherlands has been "taken hostage" by well-intentioned people on the left, wants to see the country "returned to the people." He wants both the Koran and Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to be banned in the Netherlands, because, as he claims, they incite people to commit acts of hate and violence. He also wants the country to deport criminals with dual citizenship to their countries of origin. Wilders was voted "politician of the year" by Dutch public broadcaster NOS in December 2007.

Wilders isn't exactly free to enjoy the tribute, though. He is under 24-hour police protection and has slept in a different place every night since Islamic Web sites first began calling for his beheading. While the police take the death threats seriously, Wilders is more relaxed. "You don't get used to it," he said in an interview, "but you learn to live with the threat."

In late November 2007, Wilders announced that he was working on a film that would depict "the intolerant and fascist nature of the Koran." Spokespeople from the Dutch interior and justice ministries expressed their concern about the project, but they also stressed that they had no power to dissuade the parliamentarian from going through with his plan or to prevent the film from being broadcast.

Since then, a film that no one has seen and of which no one can say that it will ever exist has become a daily topic of discussion and speculation in the Netherlands. Wilders is fueling the debate by occasionally announcing how far along the project is. In an article he wrote for the newspaper De Telegraaf in late January 2008, he announced that the film would be released in March. According to Wilders, it would be shown on a split screen, with verses and suras from the Koran on one side and examples of Sharia law being carried out on the other, including a beheading and a stoning. If Dutch television networks are unwilling to broadcast the film, Wilders said he would show it on YouTube.

This triggered a panic in the Netherlands that could only be likened to the dread leading up to a massive storm. The Dutch ambassador in Malaysia warned that protests could lead to "dozens of deaths." Dutch ambassadors in Islamic countries were instructed to increase security measures and distance themselves from the Wilders film, while counterterrorism experts at home began making preparations for the day of the broadcast. These included meetings with representatives of Muslim congregations, who Dutch officials hoped would have a moderating effect on their brothers and sisters.

It didn't help when the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr. Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, pointed out the dangers that the Dutch and the rest of the world could face. "If Wilders tears up or burns a Koran in his film, it will mean, quite simply, that he is encouraging war and bloodshed. If there is unrest, bloodshed and violence after the broadcast of the Koran film, Wilders will be responsible." Instead of reprimanding the Syrian grand mufti for his words, European Union parliamentarians celebrated him as an ambassador of peace, tolerance and "intercultural dialogue."

Whatever its intent, his message was heard. In early March, a few hundred Afghans demonstrated against the Wilders film in the northern Afghani city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where they burned Dutch flags and called for the withdrawal of Dutch NATO units from Afghanistan. This prompted NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to express his concern that broadcasting the film could have an "impact" on the troops stationed in Afghanistan.

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