From Josef Joffe
The British website LiveLeak.com has removed Fitna, intoning that it had to “place the safety of its staff above all else.” You would have thought that this is a typical reaction for all those “Euroweenies,” as the satirist Peter O”Rourke once called America’s cousins from across the sea: Let’s cave in to the mere threat of violence. In fact, the debate is a lot more thoughtful and diverse.
This is all the more significant because European constitutional practice does not share the American tradition of the “heckler’s veto.” First enunciated by Justice Douglas in Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), the basic idea is that utterances, works of art or rallies must not be suppressed just because they might arouse uncontrollable anger on the part of those who take offense. (The actual term “heckler’s veto” was first invoked in Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131, 1969.) The most dramatic recent case was a planned demonstration by American Nazis in Skokie, Illinois in 1978, a home to many survivors of the Holocaust. An Illinois appeals court lifted the ban. That episode gave rise to the immortal scene in Blues Brothers, where John Belushi and Dan Akroyd plow their car into the Nazi ranks, hurling them into the lake below.
Yet in Europe, the mere expectation of communal violence against hateful speech routinely leads to bans and prohibitions. Significantly, the Dutch government has imposed no such sanctions on Geert Wilder’s Fitna. The Hague as well as the EU have merely condemned the 16-minute film. On the other hand, no television station would air it, so Wilders had to “premiere” it on the Internet.
Fitna is the kind of montage that can be applied to anything in order to disgrace it. The familiar tools are selectivity, suggestive juxtaposition, incendiary commentary. In that, Fitna resembles your basic anti-semitic tract where quotes from the Hebrew Bible are used to depict Jews as murderous fanatics and their god as a vengeful, cruel deity—never mind what else is in the corpus and how revelation has been changed by two millennia of interpretation.
Come to think of it, as the respected NRC Handelsblad reminded its readers, the agitprop produced by Sergei Eisenstein or Michael Moore used the very same techniques. And what about Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which oscillates between manipulation and mendacity, but profits from its obeisance to contemporary standards of correctness?
The Dutch have not forgotten the murder of politician Pim Fortuyn and the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and so this haven of multiculturalist laissez-faire has become a lot less tolerant of militant self-righteousness in the name of Allah. So have the French in the aftermath of bloody riots by young Muslims in their squalid suburbs. The Germans, always willing to turn the other cheek, given their murderous racism in the Nazi years, have been shocked by foiled terrorist plots as well as “honor killings” in their midst. Perhaps, Europeans are also afflicted by a nagging sense of shame, having left little Denmark in the lurch while the country faced boycotts and burning embassies in the wake of the Muhammad cartoons.
This time, Europe is walking the fine line between appeasement and self-assertion. The Dutch are a perfect example. No, they would not ban Fitna. Instead, they went into full defensive mode. The government dispatched faxes to the municipalities: Beware, Fitna is on the Net. The police were placed on alert throughout the land. Embassies in Islamic countries were instructed to ready emergency procedures planned long ago, all the way to preparing for evacuation.
On the other hand, the Dutch bent over backward to assuage Muslim rage, knowing full well that such fury is never spontaneous, but a convenient pretext for scoring another Big One in the “clash of civilizations.” Dutch diplomats were dispatched to assure Muslim regimes that Fitna was strictly a private affair—and by no means condoned by the powers that be. Alas, so the line went, we Westerners have a tradition of free speech that keeps governments from enforcing an official truth.
What these emissaries did not cite, one surmises, is another, now safely banished part of our history. This is those three centuries of million-fold annihilation in the name of the One True God, be he the Lord or a secular Deity, as in the guise of Stalin or Hitler. To invoke this bloody past in defense of free speech would have been totally incorrect, the kind of cultural hauteur that would assign to the West a higher perch on the scale of civilizational progress.
|MESH Updater: Visit this additional post and thread, Overcoming ‘Fitna’, for more commentary on the prelude and aftermath of the film. The film may be viewed here.|
So far, so good. In their Friday sermons, Muslim clerics in Holland called for reasonability and restraint. So far, the government’s “counter-insurgency” apparatus is just idling. Islamic bloggers are keeping the flames of rage low. Have these good folks been intimidated by the harsher mood in Europe? A note of caution: In the wake of the Danish Muhammad cartoons, it took a few weeks before the propaganda engines in Libya, Pakistan and Egypt kicked in.
Next stop is Germany, where a municipal theater in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, will premiere Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses on Sunday. Recall that this led to Khomeini’s death fatwa against the author in 1989 and innumerable eruptions of Muslim rage throughout the world. Recall also the submissive response by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie: “Only the utterly insensitive can fail to see that… Salman Rushdie’s book has deeply offended Muslims both here and throughout the world.”
This time, twenty years later, submission and self-assertion, rage and restraint are more balanced. For now.
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