Few films have been anticipated with such fear and loathing. For three months, the Dutch have wrung their hands over the release of the anti-Islamic film Fitna by the provocative, far-right politician Geert Wilders, who has called Islamic theology "retarded" and "dangerous." Concerned over a repeat of the worldwide anger over the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Denmark, Dutch politicians railed against the self-proclaimed diatribe against Muslim propensity toward violence. No local outlet (television, web or theater) would show it. Wilders' own server was shut down to prevent the film from being posted online. A lawsuit has been filed against the film. But Wilders would not be daunted and on Thursday night, Fitna, which means "strife" or "discord" in Arabic, was finally broadcast on a British-based video-sharing website, snagging 5.5 million hits overnight. But the public outrage seemed to extend no longer than the 15 minutes of the film.
"Everything that can be said about the film has already been said," says Dick Houtzager, a lawyer specializing in hate speech for the Dutch NGO Art.1. "People aren't as angry or upset as they could have been." Indeed, Dutch politicians had braced themselves for the worst, putting the country on a higher alert and warning other European Union members about possible backlashes. But as most of the morning newspapers headlined, all's quiet the day after, with local Muslim leaders saying the film was not as offensive as they had feared.
Although Wilders says his film is not a "provocation," Fitna begins and ends with an image of the prophet Mohammed with a bomb under his turban, one of the Danish cartoons that sparked riots two years ago throughout the Muslim world. Wilders goes on to juxtapose verses from the Koran with statements from radical clerics and scenes of horror from New York to Madrid to London. One verse (Surah 4: 56) reads, "Those who have disbelieved our signs, we shall roast them in fire."
"He could have also chosen quotes from the Koran that say it is a sin to kill another man, it's equal to killing all humanity," State Secretary of Social Affairs Ahmed Aboutaleb told Dutch broadcasters. "But that part didn't work in his favor and that's why he chose the worst parts. If you selectively choose parts, you can find that in any religious book."
While many Muslim experts and organizations say the images in Fitna are shocking and atrocious, they are nothing new. Although they object to what's been called a "caricature of Islam," they say any violence would be an overreaction. These were welcome words to Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who praised calls of restraint from local Muslim organizations. "The film equates Islam with violence. We reject this interpretation," Balkenende said after Fitna was released. "The vast majority of Muslims reject extremism and violence." Other politicians pointed out that the extremists in the film are being prosecuted in their home countries.
A Dutch judge is expected to rule Friday on a petition filed by the Netherlands Islamic Federation that wants a ruling saying the film violates Dutch hate speech laws. The group is also seeking fines for every day the film is aired. But according to Houtzager, the film appears to fall within the boundaries of the law. "Obviously it brings forth negative aspects of the religion of Islam, but it doesn't specifically focus on the group of Muslims in the Netherlands."
There's also the problem of banning information in the age of the Internet. "Even if the court agreed on a ban of the film from the website originally broadcasting it, it would be difficult to ban it from mirror sites copying it," says Houtzager. The film is currently making the rounds on YouTube as well as other video-sharing sites. And because the original site was based in Britain, Houtzager says it's out of Dutch jurisdiction.
Wilders, who once said, "We should become intolerant of the intolerant," is keeping mum for now. But, shortly after the film's release, he said that he was ready to have a dialogue with Muslims about Islam and Fitna, the first time the anti-immigration politician has agreed to debate his adversaries. But whether his adversaries now want to talk to him is an open question.