Last week, the anti-immigrant Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, released on the internet a film intended to smear Muslims. But his movie “Fitna” is such a bore that it has only given freedom of expression a bad name.
“Fitna,” the Arabic word for “social strife,” is being trumpeted as a provocative manifesto with the potential to create yet more strife in the cosmic confrontation between Islam and the West.
I have watched it. Others should too, not because it is compelling but because, in its utter predictability, the film reminds us why freedom of expression is worth defending. To remain powerful, freedom demands creativity — the very creativity that Fitna lacks.
It is a patchwork of scenes plucked straight from the stock image warehouse: news footage of 9/11 and the Madrid train bombings spliced with clips of hate-spewing Muslims, interrupted by headlines about Theo Van Gogh’s murder in the streets of Amsterdam, all juxtaposed to incendiary passages from the Qur’an.
To be sure, egregious events, preachers and scriptures exist. By no means am I suggesting that they be sanitized. Put them on the public record, in all their vileness.
(Just be certain to secure permission. “Fitna” features a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban-turned-time bomb — one of many cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005. Local Muslim protests escalated to larger boycotts of Danish goods and culminated in full-fledged riots in various Islamic capitals. Ironically affirming that expression is never completely free, the artist who sketched the bomb-donning Prophet has announced plans to sue Wilders for violating copyright.)
The politician’s problems do not stop there. By stitching together one inflammatory visual after another, Wilders has achieved little more than a garden-variety harangue. This makes “Fitna” not only dull but, worse, easily dismissed by those who deserve to be held accountable for their silences about violence and human rights abuses committed under the banner of Islam.
A more engaging approach would have been to pepper the film with positive verses from the Qur’an, thereby revealing that Muslims who expound hostility are actively choosing to ignore the better angels of Islam.
There are plenty of positive passages to highlight. The possibility for women’s dignity is shown by 3:195, which states that God rewards “any worker among you, be you male or female — you are equal to one another.” Imagine aligning that passage with the shot of a woman’s body mutilated by an honor killing.
To shame the imams who cry death to non-Muslims, Wilders could have followed their words with these from 2:62 of the Quran: “Jews and Christians and Sabians, all who heed the One God and the Last Day, have nothing to fear or regret as long as they remain true to their scriptures.”
Indeed, he could have hammered home this point with a shorter, simpler passage — 109:6, which proclaims “unto you your religion, unto me my religion.”
Above all, Wilders missed the opportunity to give Wahhabi sermonizers and sympathizers a real run for their oil money. He could have done so by cutting between their fevered warnings of hellfire on the one hand and, on the other, diverse Muslims reading 2:256 of the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion.” The resulting message is simple yet nuanced: If Saudi-inspired Muslims insist on literalism, then why not take literally the Quran’s crystal-clear decree against compulsion?
None of this demands deleting or diluting reality. I believe Wilders has every right to publicize harsh verses from the Qur’an. He also has the right to make a painfully stale statement.
In so doing, however, Wilders debases the value of free expression. As it stands, “Fitna” reduces liberty to banality. If that is the best a freedom fighter can do, then what is the big deal about having freedom at all?
It is, of course, a huge deal when cleverly exercised. Exposing the range of choices offered by the Qur’an, “Fitna” could have put the onus on Muslims to look deep within. Non-Muslims would have learned something new. And Wilders might have advanced a serious debate — to say nothing of a necessary one — that lives up to freedom’s promise.
Therein lies the paradox: Those who crusade for freedom often do it the greatest disservice. Not unlike what has happened to Islam itself.