By Ali Wyne
Junior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Geert Wilders was, until recently, an obscure Dutch parliamentarian unable to gain traction for his views – notably, opposition to dual citizenship, immigration from non-Western countries, and Turkish membership in the European Union. In mid-2008, however, he exploded into public view with the release of his film, “Fitna,” which juxtaposes passages from the Qur’an with descriptions and acts of violence by Muslims. He was set to attend a screening of the film at the Palace of Westminster early last month, but the British Embassy in Hague informed him a few days beforehand that he risked being arrested if he went to Britain because he was viewed as a threat to “community harmony.”
When the British government indeed denied Wilders entry, it was rightly criticized for cowing to political correctness. Less discussed was another crucial consequence of that decision: it further legitimized the perception that Muslims are fearful of Islam’s detractors and unable to defend their religion on its merits. That perception is especially discouraging because the response to Wilders far overstates the seriousness of the challenge that he poses.
As suggested above, he is far to the right of the mainstream. Wilders believes that “Islam is a totalitarian ideology” that “has to be defeated,” and in late 2007 he urged the Netherlands to “ban this wretched book [the Qur’an] like Mein Kampf is banned” (an ironic posture in light of his professed commitment to free speech). More importantly, he does not challenge Islam in a way that others have not. The extremity of his rhetoric aside, in fact, his views are banal; denunciations of “Islamofascism” and the like are now staples of mainstream discourse. The appropriate reaction to Wilders would accordingly have been one of disinterest.
By attempting to silence him, his fiercest critics have shifted attention away from the actual content of his views to the perceived heroism of his campaign – the campaign, that is, to air his views. In doing so, they have compelled “undecided voters,” as it were, to weigh more seriously the very arguments of Wilders that they had hoped to expose; given mainstream visibility to an erstwhile marginal personality; and transformed his image from one of a fringe figure into a courageous fighter. This last point is critical, because where his initial defenders voiced support for Wilders’ assessment of Islam, the growing numbers of individuals who champion him now care far more about his right to speak than about what he says.
Should his views begin to command mainstream respect – an unlikely but important possibility – Muslims should defeat him in the marketplace of ideas. The Qur’an makes an excellent case for Islam – not as a faith that is free of contradiction or always accessible, but one that, on the whole, offers a rich blueprint for living virtuously and purposefully.
It is not enough, however, to understand its core teachings and challenge those who distort them. Islam’s reputation suffers greatly because we have not rejected with sufficient force those Muslims who have misappropriated Islam for destructive purposes.
We cannot hope or expect that people will continue to distinguish their distorted interpretation of Islam from the one that the vast majority of us hold; we must earn that understanding. Thus, we must engage Islam’s constructive critics and issue unqualified denunciations – not “form-letter” condemnations – of every violent act that is committed in its name. Most importantly, we must shatter the stereotypes that people may have about us – not by telling them that they are mistaken, but by proving that they are through our deeds.
Ali Wyne is a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, researching democratization and governance in China.