The film “Fitna,” released on the internet last week by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilder, is the latest attempt by a marginal European politician to turn prejudice into political capital.
Still reeling from the Danish cartoon crisis, many Dutch public officials have criticized the film. The Christian Democrats called it “villainous and unnecessarily hurtful.” Marriette Hamer, vice-Party leader of the Social Democrats, accused Wilders of “seeding fear.” Others dismissed the film as simplistic and crass.
But for some people, the film represents a small, albeit myopic, victory in an ongoing war between Western liberty and the irrationality of Muslim sensitivities. This characterization is made ever easier by the Muslim fringe who responded to the Danish cartoons with violence and destruction.
Those who see the film as an example of the West flexing its freedom muscles argue that Wilders’ movie is a product of principle — the West defending its values against Islamic fundamentalism. They assert Muslims simply need to learn that in a free society newspapers can print whatever they want, including that which offends. Muslims are not being singled out by the Danish cartoon or Wilders’ film, they allege, — they are just being treated equally.
Violence, or the threat of it, is never an appropriate response to any film and the fear of violence certainly should not influence what newspapers decide to print. However, what is often lost in these opposing black and white views of the world are the many shades of gray expressed by Europeans of all convictions regarding free speech, identity and integration, and counter-intuitively, the threat this kind of polarizing, racist rhetoric poses to the Western freedom it claims to defend.
Data on British, French, and German views of freedom of expression paint a more complex picture. The majority in these leading European countries overwhelmingly disagreed with the notion that newspapers can print whatever they wanted. Asked whether a number of expressions were protected by freedom of speech, only 18% of the French, 15% of the British, and 10% of Germans said newspapers should be able to print a cartoon making light of the Holocaust. Similarly, no more than 1 in 10 in each country said the same about newspapers printing a racial slur. And only 6% of the British, 1% of the French, and no Germans said that child pornography enjoyed this protection.
However, when asked about printing the Danish cartoon, respondents in all three countries were far more tolerant, especially in Germany. Thirty-six percent of the British and 40% of the French thought printing the cartoon was acceptable, significantly more than in the case of other expressions. The German public, which had virtually no tolerance for other offensive speech, made an exception for the Danish cartoon. While only 8% in Germany said newspapers printing a racial slur were protected by freedom of expression, 59% said printing a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist was protected.
Surprisingly, the degree to which each population regarded the Danish cartoon as acceptable did not correlate with their general acceptance of offensive speech, but instead with their degree of unfavorable opinions toward Muslims. The British public, the only one of the three groups where slightly more people had positive (3 in 10) than negative (2 in 10) opinions of Muslims, was also the only group where a slight majority thought the cartoons were unacceptable. In contrast, the German public, where a strong majority thought the Danish cartoons were acceptable, the public was at least three times more likely to hold negative (27%) as positive views (7%) of Sunni or Shiite Muslims.
Muslims living in each country’s capital had strikingly different views. As diverse as these three populations were on many issues, the vast majority in all three cities agreed that all four expressions were unacceptable. To the majority of Muslims in the three capitals, for whom faith and ethnic identity hold equal sway, the cartoon was as unacceptable as a racial slur. For many of them, the Wilders film, and many like it, was akin to using the “n-word,” spewed from a position of power against a marginalized underclass — an expression of prejudice — not principle.
Ironically, what the self-proclaimed defenders of liberty often forget is what a familiar threat demonizing a religious minority is to freedom. This type of rhetoric, meant to whip up political support through fear-mongering and manipulation, undermines the very foundation of participatory democracy: a well-informed citizenry, soberly choosing their leaders based on carefully considered rational criteria. Fear diminishes critical thinking, the propensity to question authority, or to hold government accountable. At no time has freedom suffered more than when this pillar of democratic society was weakened. Freedom is diminished, not strengthened, by the emotional manipulation of racist propaganda.
Is the solution legal censorship? No. Racist rhetoric from politicians and media sources is often a reflection of the public’s appetite or at least tolerance for it. Jyllands-Posten’s editor reportedly refused to print an offensive cartoon of Jesus only a few years before. In April 2003, Jens Kaiser, the paper’s Sunday editor, told Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler who submitted the drawings, that the newspaper would not run the cartoons because its readers would not enjoy them and that they would “provoke an outcry.” What newspapers choose to print is a reflection of their society’s evolution and understanding of civility. In the United States, “Amos and Andy” was a socially acceptable TV program until our civil rights struggle helped us realize it was racist and tasteless. Though the NAACP protested the show’s negative portrayal of blacks for decades, the program was finally removed from the air, not because it was prohibited in the legal realm, but because our society evolved beyond it in the moral realm. European societies, for whom living in a multi-cultural society is still relatively new, must grow in the same way.
With all our faults and ongoing struggles, America has something to teach the world about multi-cultural relations. We have learned through our civil rights struggle, at least in principle, that our democracy is stronger when it no longer excludes entire segments of its citizens, and that our freedom is protected, not compromised, when our definition of civility includes them.
Dalia Mogahed is executive director of The Center for Muslim Studies
at Gallup. On Faith panelist John L. Esposito is professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. They are co-authors of the new book “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.”