How a video clip held millions hostage

Searchlight - May 2008

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders posted his long awaited controversial film Fitna (Strife), critical of Islam's holy book, the Koran, on the internet on 27 March.

The film which shows – among other things – graphic scenes of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA, the Islamist bomb attacks in Madrid and London, a beheading, pictures showing Muslim extremists holding up placards saying "God bless Hitler" and "Freedom go to hell" and calls from Imams and Islamic leaders from the Middle East to destroy the West, the Jews and enemies of Islam, was posted on the UK-based video-sharing website LiveLeak because no mainstream media would touch it.

In the event, Wilders' seventeen minutes of propaganda, aired to dramatic background music, was seen by millions as it concluded with the strident message: "Muslims want you to give space to Islam, but Islam doesn't give space to you. The government tells you to respect Islam, but Islam doesn't have any respect for you. Islam wants…the destruction of our Western civilisation. In 1945 Nazism was beaten in Europe. In 1989 Communism was beaten in Europe. Now Islamic ideology has to be defeated. Stop Islamisation. Defend our freedom."

In response to the news that the film was available to view, the Dutch police sealed off the government quarter in The Hague while ten nazis from National Socialist Action stood lonesomely in the town with a banner branding Wilders a "dirty zionist".

Generally, however, the atmosphere in the Netherlands stayed very calm, disappointing for some journalists who ventured to potential "riot areas" only to meet Muslims who felt insulted but were certainly not violent. The day after, the Friday sermons in mosques were about Fitna but even infamous Salafist Imams were calling for calm and dignity and even joking about the film.

Soon, it became clear that the affair might have been a damp squib because despite Fitna being a propaganda film of a vicious kind and in the tradition of the tactics totalitarian regimes use to incite hatred towards minority groups in society, it was inside the boundaries of Dutch law.

Wilders aim, nevertheless, was to project extremist hatemongering in the Middle East onto Dutch (or European) Muslims, but these worlds are further apart than he claims. The Netherlands is self-evidently not in the claws of political Islam nor is it "five minutes to midnight" as he wants Dutch people to believe. These facts do not stop him from spreading this very dangerous and socially corrosive assumption time and time again.

In fact, within hours of the video being posted, the affair started to turn into a fiasco: after claims of the misuse of an image of a Dutch-Moroccan rapper (who Wilders confused with Mohammed Bouyeri, the murderer of filmmaker Theo van Gogh), after complaints of the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard who had not given permission for the use of his notorious cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb on his head and after the use of part of an interview with Van Gogh without authorisation from the makers, Wilders was forced to remove Fitna from the internet to make some rapid adjustment. By 6 April, though, it was back on again.

Internationally, too, official reaction was hostile but muted. In Jordan, newspapers, radio stations and websites urged a boycott of Dutch products while, in Indonesia, several demonstrations took place at the Dutch embassy. In other Muslim countries, the response was generally temperate, the governments of Iran, Indonesia and Bangladesh condemning the movie in official statements while the government of Malaysia marked some Dutch products for a boycott.

Aside from the official comments by state authorities, extremists noted the film with some glee. For example, the website Al-Ekhlaas, which often publishes Al Qaida-statements claimed that Fitna showed "the honourable jihad, as carried out by Al-Qaida" and the Taliban in Afghanistan declared that an attack on Dutch troops, in which one soldier lost both legs, were in retaliation for Wilders' film.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, Westergaard drew a new cartoon, this time lampooning Wilders by depicting him with a bomb on his head and a note around his neck with message "Watch out, freedom of speech".

A debate in the Dutch parliament the week after Fitna's release saw a fierce clash between Wilders, the rest of parliament and the government, culminating in furious exchanges, broadcast on television, between Wilders and justice minister Hirsch Ballin that centred on the minutes of a meeting between Hirsch Ballin and Wilders in November 2007 which had been made public during the debate.

The notes of the meeting purported to reveal that Wilders had planned to rip pages out of the Koran and burn them in the film but Wilders denied this, calling Ballin a liar and filing a motion demanding the government's resignation. Only his own party backed the call.

The Wilders-Hirsch Ballin spat has supplanted the row about the film. Opinion polls show that most Dutch people believe the government is lying about the minutes and that Wilders is right. Wilders is happy to leave it at that, giving the government, and politics as a whole the headache of restoring confidence and asking themselves whether they handled the supposed crisis that has surrounded Wilders' film since November 2007 in the right way.

The Fitna affair: the background

At the end of November 2007, a small notice in the Netherlands' biggest newspaper De Telegraaf reported that Geert Wilders, front man of the right-wing Freedom Party, was making a short film about the Muslim Koran with the title Fitna (Strife). Within days, the notice had sparked off a dazzling international media circus and a strong political offensive from the Dutch authorities.

Three months earlier, Wilders had fulminated against Islam's holy book in a newspaper article, comparing it with Hitler's Mein Kampf and calling for it to be banned. With the planned short film, however, Wilders was upping the stakes, claiming that he was intending to show that the Koran is not just some dusty old book but "an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror".

The reaction to Wilders' dramatic self-publicity campaign went far beyond the borders of the Netherlands. In a speech to the European parliament the Great Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badr El Din El Hassoun, luridly predicted that Fitna would ignite riots, violence and bloodshed and that these would be down to Wilders.

At the same time, an Iranian parliamentarian warned the Dutch government that if it did not stop Fitna, there would be "consequences" for relations between Iran and the Netherlands. Even the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in the USA made a report about it the planned film while Dutch embassies in the Middle East and Asia hurriedly made emergency plans to evacuate Dutch inhabitants.

Back in the Netherlands, the hysteria continued prompting the Dutch government, in a bid to avoid the kind of protests that occurred in 2005 after the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons in Danish newspapers, to issue a letter to all Dutch mayors warning them to be extra cautious about the possible "cultural tension and violence" that might arise in their cities after the release of Wilders' film. Among other things, police and fire departments were told to prepare for 'days of rioting' and to consider calling on the support of the army. It was hardly a surprise when Dutch premier Jan-Peter Balkenende started speaking openly about the "crisis" situation his government was helping to create.

By January, the scene was set for three months of argument that raged across the media. When prime minister Balkenende blamed Wilders for the unrest in the country, Wilders reacted by labelling Balkenende "a professional coward" who would "sell the Netherlands to the devil."

Wilders also starting using the pejorative term dhimmi for everybody who calls for unity and tolerance. A dhimmi is a non-Muslim who bows down to Islam in a Muslim country. Other critics, he said could "go and stuff themselves" or were "utterly crazy". This rough and insulting tone used by Wilders towards his fellow politicians is unprecedented in modern Dutch history.
Meanwhile, anxious collegues of the Dutch justice minister Hirsch Ballin asked about the safety of Dutch companies in other countries. Dutch business people exporting to Muslim countries, for example, called on the government to emphasise internationally that respect for religion is a virtue in the Netherlands and to urge Wilders not to broadcast Fitna.

At the end of February, Ballin and foreign minister Maxime Verhagen spoke to Wilders in a bid to convince him not to publish his "video-pamphlet", warning him of possible "economic consequences for the Netherlands" and even of prosecution. For his part, Wilders called the conversation "an hour of pure provocation".

In the Dutch Muslim community, reactions on the movie, which had still not been seen by anybody, were quiet with pre-emptive counter-movies launched on the internet and Imams calling on their followers not to be provoked, "because Wilders will win then".

Wilders finally agreed to show it just a day before its internet release to Tjibbe Joustra, national coordinator for Anti-Terrorism but Joustra had already upped the "terror threat" level to "substantial", the second highest level of risk of a terrorist attack in the Netherlands. Since June 2007, it should be noted, the level was "limited".

By the middle of March, the hysteria was reaching its zenith, prompting the Dutch foreign ministry to issue, for the first time, a manual for Dutch people traveling to Islamic countries and warning them to be alert and not to attract attention at the same time as calling in the ambassadors of Islamic countries to a meeting to discuss the safety of Dutch expats.

The government, it appeared, had lost no time in internationalising its anxiety about a film that had not yet appeared. In their panic, they enlisted the backing of French prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy who promised his support to the Dutch government should international problems will occur.

Likewise, the European Commission warned EU member states about Wilders' movie and Dutch development aid minister Bert Koenders urged the chairman of the African Union to work to avoid civil unrest in Africa after the film's release. Even NATO's Dutch general secretary, Jaap de Hoop-Scheffer, was drawn in to voice his worries over the consequences for the 1,650 Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan.

Wilders must have been enjoying the pantomime immensely because when his fellow offered the parliament building to screen the movie or to enable him to show it in the Nieuwspoort international press centre in The Hague, Wilders adamantly rejected their offers.

All that fits in well with the man's aim of wants to portraying himself as an "outsider" who is not part of the political world. According to Wilders, Fitna would be the "final warning to the West against Islam" though, he claims, "the struggle for our freedom" has only just begun.

"We are lucky a lot of Muslims don't know much about Islam, because they don't speak Arab," Freedom Party leader said because "that gives us time to take the necessary measures".

What these "necessary measures" will be Wilders repeatedly outed: a full stop on immigrants from Muslim countries, a ban on the Koran and closing of all mosques and Islamic schools.

Jeroen Bosch for Alert! and Antifa-Net