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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Fitna and freedom of speech

A controversial (apparently) Dutch parliamentarian, Geert Wilders, has recently released a short film, Fitna, which has been interpreted as a warning against the Islamisation of Europe - and is, on any interpretation, an attack on the content of the Koran.

I've delayed commenting until I found some time to watch Fitna. I've now seen it.

First, I admit that I know nothing about this Geert Wilders guy, since I don't follow Dutch politics much. I've seen many claims that he is driven by a racist agenda. There is also much talk about his having made an attempt to ban the Koran in the Netherlands, which would seem hypocritical for someone who depends on freedom of speech to be able to express his own controversial viewpoint.

It doesn't matter. Perhaps he is a racist and a hypocrite. Perhaps, for all I know, he has sex with his pet parrot every night. Whether or not that's true, I see nothing in the movie that should be condemned by liberal people (whether or not they actually agree with it, which is a different issue).

The message is presented powerfully, but solemnly, through juxtapositions of passages from the Koran with footage of atrocities and Islamist rantings. The tone is not inflammatory; it doesn't arouse hatred or passion. It leaves the viewer feeling troubled - yet calm and reflective.

As I interpret the film (and like all texts it is open to interpretation), the message is quite simple:

The Koran contains material that can incite hatred of non-Muslims and violence against them. It is up to Muslims to tear those parts from their holy book. This could just mean ignoring the hateful passages, as most Christians, to their credit, ignore the most atrocious passages in the Bible.

That's a perfectly reasonable view to express, whether or not the relevant passages can be explained away by moderate Muslim scholars.

I don't care how sore that poor parrot is getting by now. I don't care if turns out that Wilders made his fortune by clubbing baby seals to death with a large-text edition of Mein Kampf that he bought from David Irving, back in the day, during a six-week orgy of Nazism, Frauleins, and booze in the Austrian Alps.

It doesn't matter. His freedom of speech should still be protected, and I see plenty of attacks on it.

What we must do, as loudly as we can, is object to politically-correct, or just plain cowardly, Western leaders who want to denounce or even suppress what Wilders has to say. Wilders may be Satan himself, but he has every right to express his views.

8 comments:

Coathangrrr said...

The Koran contains material that can incite hatred of non-Muslims and violence against them. It is up to Muslims to tear those parts from their holy book. This could just mean ignoring the hateful passages, as most Christians, to their credit, ignore the most atrocious passages in the Bible.

As do most Muslims. This is exactly where most of these accusations of racism come from, people make these absurd assumptions about "Muslims" based on the behavior of a minority of them. There is sure as hell just as many examples of Christians doing the same stuff right now all over Africa. Even in the U.S. we have Christians murdering in the name of the religion, and these people don't say crap about that, why?

I'm certainly not going to say that the Quran doesn't have some bad stuff in it, but compared to the Bible it is a kid's book. If you haven't done it, go read the old testament, especially Leviticus. Pretty much everything you could do wrong should be punished by death.

Thomas Hendrey said...

"What we must do, as loudly as we can, is object to politically-correct, or just plain cowardly, Western leaders who want to denounce or even suppress what Wilders has to say. Wilders may be Satan himself, but he has every right to express his views."

Hi Russell, I'm confused, I thought 'denouncing' was just expressing (rather strong) disapproval, and I don't see why liberals should necessarily feel a need to object to some people expressing dissaproval of Fitna. I think it might just be my lack of understanding of what 'denounce' means but could you help me out here? Of course if they want to suppress it that's a different story (though there are tensions between my desire for unmitigated free speech and my belief in consequentialism that I haven't yet resolved).

Also it seems entirely possible that the juxtaposition of Qu'ranic recitation and footage of atrocities could arouse hatred and passion. I think it would undoubtedly be deemed offensive by many Muslims particularly if it is created by someone believed to be pushing a racist anti-muslim agenda. I know very little about Danish politics or this Wilders figure, but it seems from what you say that there are a number of ways the release of this film couldhave bad consequences (even if it wouldn't if it were created by a less controversial figure). It would seem that the question for anyone involved in promoting, broadcasting, supporting or whatever, this film is whether there are good effects that outweighs these. Maybe things like a preservation of of media independence by showing a lack of intimidation, but I'm not convinced of this. If the film does have more bad effects than good then what I understand by denouncing would seem like a reasonable response to a film.

Blake Stacey said...

I watched Fitna several days ago, when the subject came up at PZ Myers's blog. The film seemed cheap and manipulative to me. I mean, what was with that bar graph showing the total Muslim population of the Netherlands — are they all high on Osama-juice? (And jeepers, such unimaginative font choices. Hooray for "Papyrus" typeface, the way to make anything Instantly Arabic!)

I think Russell's reading of the film is correct, as far as it goes, but in my view, it needs an addendum:

The Koran contains material that can incite hatred of non-Muslims and violence against them. It is up to Muslims to tear those parts from their holy book. No significant number of Muslims have actually done this, and consequently, the civilization of Europe is imperiled by their presence.

It could even be true.

But Wilder hasn't bothered to prove it.

No reasonable democracy could punish a person for making such a movie. What I want to see is Fitna II: Texas Style, in which passages from the Old and New Testaments are played on one side of the screen — perhaps sung in Country-Western style — while scenes of domestic abuse in American homes and prison brutality in Abu Ghraib flash across the other.

Coathangrrr said...

Just one question, why is the issue of freedom of speech coming up? Has anyone threatened to ban this film? Is it the policy of the Netherlands that things that incite racial hatred be banned? I get annoyed at all these people that cry "freedom of speech" when someone criticizes them.

Steve Zara said...

I find this difficult. I see some responses to this film which see no problem as it is simply showing facts. That is naive.

Let me give an example of freedom of speech that has been problematic. A UK doctor, Andrew Wakefield, produced a report that some cases had been found of autism being co-incident with use of the MMR vaccine. Those were facts. But, because those facts were not put into context, they led to major problems.

Should there be freedom to release facts if they are organised to support a particular controversial viewpoint?

In the UK we try to ensure balance when political messages are broadcast. I believe this video is a political message.

Russell Blackford said...

Good point, Thomas, There's a difference between "denounce" and "suppress". However, it's also true that the difference can be less clear when we're talking about political leaders. I do expect Western political leaders to concentrate on defending freedom of speech. When they get into denouncing, I always feel that acts of suppression are not far behind. We've had experience of that in the past.

As for ordinary people who are not political leaders, they have every right to denounce Fitna or its creators. On the other hand, there's a lot of controversy at the moment as to how far Western countries should go in suppressing such speech (to answer coathangrrr's question). E.g. there's a push in the states of Australia that don't already have religious vilification laws to enact them, and I am one of the few people arguing the other side.

I think that some of us who are not politicians also have good reason to concentrate on Wilders' right to express his message rather than on whether we agree with it or what we think of Wilders himself.

All this is leaving aside that the film turned out to be much more restrained in tone than was expected, etc., etc.

Josh Spinks said...

Russell, You said when Western political leaders "get into denouncing, I always feel that acts of suppression are not far behind." Insofar as the film is denouncing something, shouldn't this arouse the same suspicions of Wilders as of politicians denouncing the film?

Thomas Hendrey said...

"However, it's also true that the difference can be less clear when we're talking about political leaders. I do expect Western political leaders to concentrate on defending freedom of speech. When they get into denouncing, I always feel that acts of suppression are not far behind. We've had experience of that in the past."

But isn't this what liberals should object to? If calls for suppression are seen as the logical next step of denuncitation shouldn't liberals be using every oppurtunity to say why this shouldn't be the case, rather than implicitly accepting this by objecting to the denunciations themselves?

Objecting to denunciations from politicians would seem to me to distort the liberal message in two ways. First it may make it seem as if were something to be correctly denounced it should also be suppressed. Secondly it would give the impression that politicians ought not to denounce things, which, I think, is false. Some things should never be said, they might be offensive, misleading, inflammatory or false. Where something is said that shouldn't be said denunciation is often a good thing. What liberals should say, I think, is that while many things should not be said most of these should not be banned from being said. Exactly how liberals can justify this is an interesting question and will probably get quite different answers from different liberals, but that is what needs to be justified from a liberal perspective I think.

Of course you may be right that this movie doesn't deserve denuncitation but this seems to me to be a separate issue to that of liberalism.