Opinion Taking a Cue from the Danish Cartoon Scandal

There are parallels between Dutch politician Geert Wilders' anti-Koran video and the response to the Muhammad cartoons that rocked Denmark two years ago. By placing his video on the Web, he will merely help Islamic fundamentalists and right-wing, anti-Muslim activists feed off each other's extremism.
Von Jytte Klausen
Geert Wilders' performance piece in Holland neatly follows the script established during the cartoon affair.

Geert Wilders' performance piece in Holland neatly follows the script established during the cartoon affair.

Foto: REUTERS

No Dutch TV station, private or public, had been willing to show Geert Wilders' 15-minute movie "Fitna," in which he compares the threat of Islam in Europe to that of fascism before World War II. They wouldn't air it in Denmark either, despite his efforts to peddle it there. Instead, he was forced to release it on Thursday on the Web site Liveleak. Apparently, at 15 minutes, it was too long for YouTube.

The final product strikingly resembles the trailers produced by jihadis -- there are clips of bodies being dragged through the street and fiery speeches interspersed with pictures of the Koran. Indeed, parts are taken directly from jihadist promotional material. You see the beheading of a kidnapping victim by Islamic terrorists, angry preachers of hate and a small girl being indoctrinated as an anti-Semite. One almost has to ask how jihadists could possibly object to this movie? In that respect, it was a victory for jihadists -- because Wilders obviously cowed to them. He ultimately protected himself by not burning the Koran or doing any of the gags he had promised. After his months-long promise to shock, it was easy to feel whiplashed on Thursday by his bait and switch.

There are also moments of pure source manipulation. Before showing a clip of the infamous jihadi propaganda video showing Eugene Armstrong, an American contractor in Iraq who was beheaded in 2004 by Musab al-Zarqawi's group, and footage of murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Wilders translates relevant sura from the Koran: "Smite their necks," it starts. We get the idea: Muslims kills Christians because the Koran tells them this is how they should treat infidels. When I reached for my copy of the Koran, though, and looked up Sura 47, verse 4, it read: "When you meet unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly. Then grant them their freedom or take a ransom from them, until war is over."

Here, Wilders took the nasty Saudi translation, left out parts of the sura and neglected to say that it refers to Muhammad's war against the pagan tribes after his ejection from Mecca and recounts the prophet's injunction to treat prisoners of war with compassion. Wilders reads the Koran like the Devil reads the Bible.

The footage it shows of the execution of a woman comes from Afghanistan. In its waning days, the Taliban used a soccer field in Kabul for public executions. Wilders cut the footage in pieces to suggest multiple incidents, but it all comes from the same shot from a female Muslim journalist who dressed in a burqa and sat in the bleachers with a hidden camera. The footage created an uproar and generated Muslim support for taking down the Taliban with military action. In this respect, Wilders also works like the jihadist extremists: Both want us to forget the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan are completely different wars and that both individual Muslims and Muslim countries supported (and still do) the mission in the Hindu Kush.

And horrifying footage of the planes flying into the World Trade Center is prefaced with another citation from the Koran: "Strike terror into their hearts ..." This sura, too, refers to the war with the pagan tribes. The next verse, though, urges the believers to embrace peace when it is offered. "If they incline to peace, make peace with them and put your trust in God."

The last five minutes about the Islamization of Europe is pure make-believe. Mosques replace windmills on a postcard with "Greetings from Holland." Fuzzy bar graphs show how many Muslims there are in Europe and how they proliferate. It claims that Europe in 2007 was home to 54 million Muslims. But this is how the Nazis told the story of the supposed Jewish takeover: all lies. There are 15 million Muslims in Western Europe and another 7.5 million in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. At most, Muslims comprise 2 to 8 percent of the European population.

How Wilders Follows the Script of the Danish Cartoon Affair

Karl Marx said that history always repeats itself, the second time as farce. And this is where we stand with the release of "Fitna," two years after the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published 12 Muhammad caricatures lampooning the Prophet.

When the paper published the cartoons on Sept. 30, 2005, the newspaper's idea was to test whether Muslims were attempting to dictate to the general public what could or could not be said about Islam. The editors solicited satirical drawings from members of the association of Danish caricaturists to see how deep-seated the fear was. Two-thirds of its members didn't want to contribute anything at all, and among those who did, several made fun of the Danes for complaining about Muslims and others took shots at the Jyllands-Posten editors. Many didn't bother to portray the Prophet at all.

At the time, other Danish papers treated the stunt as a bad joke. Jyllands-Posten was targeting a group of Danish imams who had complained about the press, and the paper never intended for the cartoons to travel the world. Indeed, nobody outside Denmark reacted for four full months. Nothing happened until the Egyptian government -- upset that Copenhagen had not responded to Cairo's diplomatic requests that it address the problem of growing Islamophobia in Denmark -- took action by stirring up the religious authorities and considering a boycott of Danish products that the scandal gained steam.

Wilders has a following in Denmark, but not among the cartoonists. Earlier this month, the Danish branch of Wilders’ solidarity movement, “Stop the Islamization of Europe,” was prevented by a lawsuit from using one of the cartoons -- Kurt Westergaard’s iconic drawing of the prophet with a bomb in his turban, as the symbol for their righteous resistance during a demonstration in Aalborg, Denmark's third largest city. Westergaard filed the suit against the group claiming copyright infringement. He won. The drawing has been plastered on T-shirts and circulates widely, and it was not fear that motivated Westergaard. He didn't like the company.

Ironically, he could be the man who ultimately puts a stop to Wilders' film. On Thursday, he said he asked the Danish association of journalists, which represents the cartoonists, to take legal action against the Dutch politician for copyright infringement. "You cannot appropriate other people's work and use it," he told Jyllands-Posten. "I have no illusions about being able to stop people from misusing that drawing, but if I can stop it now I will do it. My drawing was made for a particular context and (Wilders) cannot just use it."

Wilders' mini-movie in Holland, launched into cyberspace on Thursday evening, neatly follows the script established during the cartoon affair. One doesn't even need to see the video -- Wilders had made sure that everyone knows what it is about. This, after all, is intended as a sequel -- and Muslim extremists, free speech fundamentalists and governments all know what the next act will bring.

The build-up in Denmark took a long time, but ultimately threats were made against Jyllands-Posten's editors, its publisher, the cartoonists and other people selected by a logic that is hard to fathom. Over 2,000 Danish computers were attacked by hackers three months after the cartoon crisis started in early February 2006. Most targets were randomly selected and had no relationship to the newspaper. Girl Scouts troops, school districts, companies, the Foreign Ministry, and families who happened to have a Web page were among the victims, according to H-Zone, a watchdog site that specializes in tracking hackers.

Radical Islamists and Home-Grown Fascists

This time, though, the threats began arriving even before the video was released. This month, three Dutch families who happen to share Wilders' last name received letters in the mail threatening to kill them, their children, or their grandchildren if they didn't stop their namesake from releasing his film. And this before the movie even went online.

Meanwhile, a dangerous pas-de-deux is taking shape between radical Islamists and home-grown fascists, one that was sparked by the caricatures and might now be further fueled by Wilders' film. Danish and Dutch security services have issued public warnings about growing recruitment and radicalization among young people connected to far-right extremist groups.

It's a development reminiscent of the peak of the cartoon protests, when Islamist fundamentalists and right-wing anti-Muslim activists were actually coordinating their actions and feeding off each other's extremism.

On Feb. 3, 2006, an anonymous text message was disseminated among Muslims around the world claiming that the Koran would be burned the next day at a demonstration in Copenhagen. It was a message that confirmed the widespread suspicion in the Muslim world that the cartoons weren't just an isolated event, but rather a symbol of a Danish population intent on insulting Islam. When recipients forwarded the message, it spread like wildfire.

The rumor nearly came true. A Danish group had planned to stage a public burning of a copy of the Koran. The next day, the Danish police arrested 179 demonstrators and counter-demonstrators converging for a protest organized by Dansk Front, a neo-Nazi group. The mass arrests prevented the group from staging the announced bonfire. A group of French militants drove up for the demonstration and had their own happening. They filmed themselves pissing on the Koran and posted the video on YouTube, where it can still be seen.

But should we worry about "Fitna's" release? Will it mobilize radical groups in the same way? Will it lead to a replay of "Something Rotten in the State of Denmark" or the "Jihad Behind the Dikes" kicked off by the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh?

Much of the rhetoric is exaggerated, but there are serious threats. And the definition of what constitutes a "credible" death threat has changed since van Gogh's slaying by a Dutch extremist of Moroccan extraction. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, famous for depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, and two other cartoonists have had to go underground because of very real threats. Jyllands-Posten cultural editor Flemming Rose, who commissioned the cartoons, found himself in the same situation. In Holland, Wilders has been under 24-hour police protection since 2004 and reportedly spends the night in high-security barracks.

Indeed, the protagonists in both of these errant plays -- Rose and Wilders -- have paid a high personal price for their alleged attempts to protect the absolute right to free speech. What a shame, then, that the free speech they claim to be defending isn't even at risk in Europe. In fact, one could argue that the freedom they cite doesn't even exist at all. When Rose claimed that in the name of free speech Muslims must "be willing to put up with sarcasm, mockery, and ridicule," he was wrong on two counts. First, images are not speech -- Western courts have long allowed stricter limits to be placed on images than words. Pornographic images are also subject to greater restrictions than pornographic books. Second, racial and religious insults fall outside the realm of protected speech. Ironically, the United States has the most absolute right to free speech, but even there voluntary guidelines against offensive and racist language and imagery kept newspapers from republishing the Muhammad cartoons.

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