BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Earlier this month, right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders was denied entry to the United Kingdom, where he arrived to screen his 17-minute film, Fitna, before select members of the House of Lords. Turned away at Heathrow Airport, Wilders received a letter on behalf of British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. It stated that Wilders’ presence in the U.K. would, quote, “pose a genuine, present and significantly serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society. The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in the film and elsewhere, would threaten community harmony and therefore public safety in the U.K.”
BOB GARFIELD: The Home Secretary’s decision was backed by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who, paraphrasing a famous American Supreme Court opinion, said, quote, “There is no freedom to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and there is no freedom to stir up religious and racial hatred according to the laws of the land.” Of course, not everyone agreed. The Daily Telegraph called the decision an assault on, quote, “the citadel of free speech,” and The Independent accused the British government of, quote, “playing into the hands of those whose agenda is to set fellow Britons at each other’s throats.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the film is indeed hate speech, it’s more than that. There is a context that underlies this tug-of-war over press freedom – the so-called clash of cultures between some Muslims living in the West and their host nations. Nowhere has this clash played out more fiercely than in Europe, where free expression has caused offense so profound it has exploded into violence. Should all speech, including insults to religion and race, be protected? And when media and governments consider what should and shouldn't be said, what’s the line between cultural sensitivity and censorship? The answers to those questions keep evolving, as Bob learned a year ago when he asked some of the people who stand at the center of that storm.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: In March, 2008, Wilders released his short film, Fitna, titled with the ambiguous Arabic word that can mean schism or provocation. Nothing ambiguous about the movie, though. It shows graphic images of horrific acts of terrorism, from the Twin Towers to corpse desecration to beheadings, juxtaposed with the Koranic verses that supposedly justify the violence. And, for good measure, Wilders throws in video of various radical clerics inciting Jihad against the West.
MAN: You will take over U.S.A.! You will take over the U.K.! You will take over Europe! You will defeat them all. You will get victory. You will take over Egypt. We trust in Allah.
BOB GARFIELD: The film was released on the video website LiveLeak.com. The next day it was taken down after threats to LiveLeak personnel until security could be put in place to protect them. But how eerily the episode seemed to fulfill Wilders' bleak and alarming vision – a Muslim subculture that spawns barbaric reactions to free expression and a craven, ultimately self-defeating Western self-censorship. Yes, Wilders, the Islamophobic provocateur, has neatly identified the Fitna in two cultures. There is the growing and largely unassimilated Dutch Muslim population, but also Europe at large, taught by history to flinch at the very thought of stereotyping. Mein Kampf, Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic propaganda are outlawed in much of Western Europe, where the backlash of colonialism and fascism has elevated respect for alien cultures to an article of faith. Dutch-born journalist Ian Buruma:
IAN BURUMA: That was quite common amongst this liberal left was to denounce anybody who even saw a large number of Muslim immigrants coming into the country as a problem. Such people were very quickly denounced as racists, as people who were going to reintroduce the kind of racism that the Nazis had.
BOB GARFIELD: The problem, says Buruma, is that the impulse to stifle hateful speech also stifles healthy debate about social and political conflicts that desperately need to be discussed. And if the liberal orthodoxy is disinclined, who will dominate the conversation? Voices like Wilders – opportunists, xenophobes and reactionaries just itching to confront the taboos of the left.
IAN BURUMA: They are tapping into a common anxiety amongst people that the country no longer belongs to them, that they're being abandoned by the political elite, and this anxiety has been crystallized by a general fear of immigrants, and Muslims in particular.
BOB GARFIELD: For example, in 2004, pugnacious filmmaker Theo Van Gogh released a ten-minute drama called Submission, the story of four Muslim women. One is a pious young newlywed in an arranged marriage, beaten by her husband and raped by her uncle.
FEMALE ACTOR: And when I told my mother, she said she would take it up with my father. But [LAUGHS] my father ordered her and me not to question his brother's honor. I [LAUGHS] experience pain each time my uncle comes to see me. I feel caged, like an animal waiting for slaughter, and I'm filled with guilt and shame. And, and I feel abandoned.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: The film created an uproar in Holland for its damning portrayal of Islam, but especially for the Koranic verses painted on the bare skin of the actress. This blasphemy was too much for a disaffected young Moroccan immigrant named Muhammad Bouyeri, who, in November, 2004, confronted Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and shot him to death. He then used a dagger to pin an angry screed to Van Gogh's body. It called for a holy war against the West and specifically targeted the film's writer, former Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The Somali-born refugee turned MP is herself a harsh critic of Muslim law and culture, but in the murder of her colleague, she also casts blame on the folly of what she calls "white guilt."
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Mohammed Bouyeri, the man who killed Theo Van Gogh, would not have done that and could not have done that if in the 1970s, the 1980s, when Dutch authorities saw the emergence of radical Islam within Europe, within their own country, they had taken the necessary measures, which they didn't.
BOB GARFIELD: She accuses the powers that be, in other words, of submission – to radical intimidation and their own conflicted liberalism.
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: We can't try to silence dissident opinion. We have to argue and we have to engage with each other. And we can't do that by threatening to take people to court, by killing them or by ostracizing those who disagree with us.
BOB GARFIELD: Such sentiment was entirely the point behind the publication in 2005 of the notorious Danish cartoons, which included hideous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, including one portraying him as a terrorist bomber. The 12 panels were commissioned by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten after the author of a children's book on Islam was unable to find an illustrator, lest graven images of the Prophet be deemed blasphemous. The cartoons were intended to satirize Danish self-censorship, but to much of the Muslim world they were a grave graven insult, which is not necessarily a rejection of free expression. At some point, even protected speech is so disrespectful as to be beyond the pale. Think, for example, of the N word. Mostafa Chendid is a Copenhagen imam who attempted to win apologies from the newspaper and from the Danish government for the offense.
MOSTAFA CHENDID: Muhammad for me is better than myself, my family, than my parents, better than anything. So if you discuss his message, it's fine. You criticize him, it's fine. You insult him, it's not fine.
BOB GARFIELD: After weeks went by and no official apologies were forthcoming, Chendid's Islamic Society of Denmark sought help in Cairo, where the government found it politically useful to take up the grievance. From Egyptian state newspapers, word spread all around the world, leading to mass demonstrations, riots, torched embassies, scores of deaths.
[DEMONSTRATION HUBBUB] This demonstration was not in Cairo or Islamabad or Jakarta but in London's Hyde Park.
PEOPLE CHANTING: Kill, kill Denmark. Kill, kill, Denmark. Kill, kill, Denmark. Kill, kill -
BOB GARFIELD: Kill, kill Denmark. Bin Laden's coming back. Westerners found it absurd and medieval that mere words and pictures would be deemed justification for violence. They wondered why millions of Muslims could be so furious about a disrespectful cartoon yet fail to rally in outrage at the slaughter of innocents by terrorists acting in Islam's name. And they worried, at last aloud, if liberal notions of tolerance had allowed respect for alien values to undermine their own. Provocation. Schism. In Copenhagen, the Mecca of multiculturalism, Fitna.
FLEMMING ROSE: The multi-culturalist model has failed in Europe and it's becoming pretty clear now we have to come up with something else.
BOB GARFIELD: Flemming Rose, culture editor for Denmark's Jyllands-Posten and the man who commissioned the Danish cartoons.
FLEMMING ROSE: There is a misunderstanding of what tolerance means, the fact of the matter that today the concepts of tolerance are being used in order to stifle free speech.
BOB GARFIELD: But of course - not entirely. While media and political elites may not feel free to share their most uncharitable thoughts, obviously some voices are stifled not at all – not Geert Wilders' and not radical Islamists who freely float bizarre conspiracy theories, spew hatred and incite violence online. In the 21st century, for the first time in human history, there is an unfettered and instantaneous free market for paranoia on the Web.
[MAN SPEAKING ARABIC]
LAWRENCE PINTAK: Media has played a big role in this democratization of fatwas, if you will.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Pintak is director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo.
LAWRENCE PINTAK: Everybody and his brother has a TV station or a website and everybody and his brother are issuing fatwas. And I may have no credentials Islamically, but if I've set myself up as a cleric and if I can convince a small group of people around me to follow me and then set up a website and influence others, I have a big impact, which is something that Islam as a whole is struggling to figure out how to deal with.
BOB GARFIELD: Struggling indeed. Consider Ibrahim El-Houdaiby of Ikhwanweb.com, the English-language website of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has been a moderate voice preaching calm in the wake of Geert Wilders' film, Fitna. He is quick to denounce violence under any circumstances, though he's prepared to acknowledge he understands it.
IBRAHIM EL-HOUDAIBY: If you're asking for why, it's most probably because most of the Muslim world is living under repressive regimes which do not allow for the freedom of expression, so we are not familiar with the idea of discussing things and disagreeing and being able to present our ideas in a civilized manner.
BOB GARFIELD: Houdaiby, like Danish imam Chendid, takes pains to distinguish between free speech and insults, which he says are inexcusable. This prompts me to inquire about a double standard: What of the insults routinely hurled by Muslim clerics, politicians and mobs towards Christians and Jews? What does he think, for instance, of Palestinian schoolchildren being taught that Jews are apes and pigs? Houdaiby's response is to differentiate between insult and expression of legitimate grievances.
IBRAHIM EL-HOUDAIBY: Let me start by asserting that I am against any form of insults, but not every criticism against what's going on in Palestine and Palestinian territories or what's going on in Iraq is an insult to Americans. If you kill somebody and he responds by criticizing what you do, criticizing illegal occupation of those who are occupied and not of Americans in general, of those who are killing civilian women and children and old men in Palestine and Palestinian territories, and not at every Jew, that's a different story.
BOB GARFIELD: And there it is - a sense of righteousness born of a sense of victimization that purports to explain, if not exactly excuse, the radical minority of Muslims. So it's not merely different cultures and different values that separate some immigrants from their native European neighbors. It is also the fixation on obtaining justice from a Western world that conspires to diminish them, or worse. To Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was forced by death threats to flee Holland and live in hiding, that difference spells trouble.
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: These critical questions of Islam will forever be asked as long as the Koran is used as a justification for killing people and as long as the so-called mainstream people remain silent and refuse to distance themselves from that violence.
BOB GARFIELD: A conflict forever? Modernism versus primitivism, cultural relativism versus self-preservation? Is it really so simple, and so hopeless? What if, for instance, the horror stories and headlines were obscuring a slow but steady process of assimilation? Author Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam attempts to unravel the complexities behind Theo Van Gogh's assassination. He says the doomsayers are missing something.
IAN BURUMA: They assume that the third generation will be exactly the same as the first generation, which is, of course, never true. As people move into the middle class, they often become much less religious. They change. They assimilate.
The population of the Muslim world is enormous, something like 1.2 billion Muslims.
BOB GARFIELD: Professor Muneer Fareed is secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America.
MUNEER FAREED: And many of them, especially those who live in impoverished parts of the world, look forward to gaining access. They want some of that which is Western. They're not too enthused by the culture, I admit, but they want the material trappings that Europe offers. They want the education that Europe offers. And guess what? They want the freedom that Europe offers. And in time, they get acculturated.
BOB GARFIELD: It's certainly true that ghettoized, marginalized first-generation immigrants tend naturally to turn inward. Think of Chinatown and Little Italy and the Yiddish-speaking enclaves of Manhattan's Lower East Side. They had their own customs, their native languages, their own newspapers – and high birth rates. But they did not hijack America. Contrary to some alarmist predictions of cultural takeover, Fareed says, Muslims do not represent a demographic Trojan horse bent on overpowering Western societies. Rather, he says, they're just fish out of water.
MUNEER FAREED: It's a very difficult thing to reconfigure your culture and your faith in a new environment. It takes a long while. This is a learning curve, and Muslims are indeed learning how to deal maturely with issues that are offensive to them.
BOB GARFIELD: And perhaps the learning curve is especially steep because of the societies they are coming from – repressive ones, certainly throughout the Arab world, tribal ones, ancient and patriarchal, impoverished ones, rife with illiteracy and despair. Yet, even Ayaan Hirsi Ali, after all she has been through, is at least guardedly optimistic.
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Because enough people are waking up to the danger. There are lots of people who want to listen. There are lots of people who want to think about how to bring about that assimilation.
BOB GARFIELD: It's worth noting that her film, Submission, spawned the director's murder but, four years later, three weeks after the release of Fitna, no such violence has erupted. In Holland, so far, Geert Wilders' provocateur has provoked only discussion. And what about Denmark, where Flemming Rose of Jyllands-Posten still struggles in his own personal “Fitna” about whether he did the right thing?
FLEMMING ROSE: If I say, well, I will do it again tomorrow, a lot of people will find me coldhearted and pretty cynical. But if I say, well, I will not do it again, then I will send a very unfortunate message to those who have intimidated, threatened and committed violence during the cartoon crisis, and tell them if you threaten enough, if you are intimidating enough, we will do exactly as you please.
BOB GARFIELD: A dilemma, yes, but one apparently resolved. In February, his was one of 17 Danish newspapers to reprint the cartoons on the same day, knowing full well how offensive the images are to so many.
FLEMMING ROSE: This time around, there were no news value in reprinting that cartoon and that it more had to do with solidarity with this cartoonist who had to go into hiding because, in fact, three people were plotting to kill him. But, you know, the fact of the matter is that in Denmark over the last two years, it has become non-controversial to publish that cartoon. In fact, we have published that cartoon maybe 10 or 20 times without any reaction whatsoever.
BOB GARFIELD: No riots, no murders, no fatwas, no embassies aflame. Instead, shaking heads, a few shrugs, and resignation, which, by the way, is not the same thing as submission.