Debate about Geert Wilders and his anti-Koran film Fitna is everywhere in Holland. Newspapers, television shows and private conversations are awash with apprehension.
Since the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, and the hounding into exile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wilders is the most prominent critic of Islam in Holland. With his shock of blond hair and startlingly frank language, the MP and leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom is instantly recognisable.
But what about Fitna — the movie that no one has seen, but everyone, including the Dutch government, has already condemned for being likely to kick off the next round in the violent confrontation between radical Islam and European liberalism?
A few days before I saw Wilders last week, Holland’s Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, held a press conference calling for the film to be halted. Others have followed suit. ‘The government leaked that the movie was coming,’ says Wilders. ‘Our foreign minister went to Syria and said what they said to every diplomat all over the world… Listen, there is a movie, we are fully against this movie… So they created a huge thing, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy because, thanks to the government, it was now known from Timbuktu to Afghanistan that there will be a movie.’
The government has tried legal threats, financial and moral blackmail — including the claim that the movie will make Dutch troops in Afghanistan a target — to persuade Wilders to pull the movie. For their part, al-Qa’eda has issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims everywhere to try to kill Wilders. Even for a man who has been under 24-hour security protection for three and a half years (‘It’s something that you don’t wish for your worst enemy’) this is a new order of threat.
And while the death threats flood in, so do the kind of petty threats from the home-side which can rankle even more. Fear of terrorist attacks in response to the film mean the government is threatening to close the streets around the parliament. Shopkeepers are already presenting pre-emptive claims for lost earnings to Wilders.
‘[We] have such a coward of a Prime Minister,’ he says. ‘They are trying to get fear in the heads of the people of the Netherlands. ‘If something happens they want to say afterwards, this guy was to blame.’
And will he not be at all? Wilders is adamant: ‘I’m not bound to any Afghan or Sufi or Pakistani law. I am bound to the Dutch law and I’m sure that my movie will be within all the boundaries of the Dutch law. You can like the text or dislike the text, like the message or dislike the message, but I’m not doing anything that will be an incitement of hatred or things like that.’ So what is his aim?
‘I really believe that the Koran is a fascist book and Islam — which is more ideology, according to me, than religion — is something that is at least very bad for our values and our society. I’m not a cultural relativist. I believe that we should be proud of our culture. Our culture is far better than the more retarded Islamic culture. So this is why last year in an article I wrote, I said, well, we should ban the Koran. I initiated a big debate with the Prime Minister in the Dutch parliament about it and talked about how it would be good if there could be a new Koran like a New Testament and all the hatred and incitement and intolerance — get rid of that.’ The sole limit to freedom of speech that Wilders recognises is incitement. And this is the problem he has with the Koran.
‘Big parts of the Koran today are still used… to do the most terrible things. And I believe a lot of people don’t know that and I hope it will open their eyes and we will get a discussion going about the real nature of Islam. We should stop this process of Islamisation and we should protect not only our identity but also our freedom more. With the growing amount of Islamisation of both our countries and our societies we will lose our freedoms. At the end of the day Islam will kill our democracy and our society, and I know it will not happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow but there is a process going on and there is a total lack of urgency of people who really feel that it is a threat.’
And what is his main message to the non-Muslims who see his film?
‘Stop being a cultural relativist and be proud of who you are, and fight for it especially if, you know, I mean these people are not Buddhist. I wrote an article a few weeks ago that said, imagine if I would have said last year that I wanted to burn the Bible, that I want to make a movie to show the fascist character of Christianity. Would there be extra meetings of the government? Would there be evacuation plans of our embassies in Rome, Berlin and Brussels? Would there be bishops like grand muftis who say there would be bloodshed?… The answer of course is “no”. So it proves my point already. All the reactions of the Islamic world, even unfortunately from the Dutch government, show that Islam is something different, has to be treated differently, as something entirely beside our own culture and values.’
And why did he choose the title he did? Because ‘Islam is our challenge — our fitna. Every day, a few times every Muslim if he sees a woman walking in a short skirt or somebody with a picture or drawing of Mohammed, all the time they have fitnas… A Muslim knows from the age of five what fitna means, every Muslim and, well — Islam is the fitna of our society. Will we survive the challenge of this terrible ideology? Will we be able to stop it or to give it the place that it will not kill our democratic society and values that we share in the West?’
I leave Wilders and head back to Amsterdam. Before flying off I see Sooreh Hera, a young Iranian-exile photographer. She is now in her third month in hiding. Late last year her work attracted condemnation from Muslim extremists in Holland who threatened her life. The gallery where her work was most recently meant to be shown has cancelled the display after the curator received death threats and had to go under protection himself.
Though Fitna looks set to have loud consequences, perhaps the price of silence is already too high. When the limits of freedom of speech are dictated from outside you may not feel it today or tomorrow. But the day after, or some day soon, you will.
Wilders sums it up defiantly: ‘If I surrender, they will win. And they will never win. They have to lose, and they will lose.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 15, 2008