Opposites detract: Iran and the Netherlands in conflict over Qu’ran film

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Iranians urge Dutch to ban film
Just the other day Al-Jazeera television refused to adopt a media code which would ban satellite channels deemed to have offended Arab leaders or national or religious symbols. Today, Iran urges the Netherlands to ban a film made by Dutch MP Geert Wilders on the subject of the Qu’ran. According to the BBC, Iranian justice minister Gholam Hussein Elham said ‘freedom of speech should not be used as a cover for attacking moral and religious values.’

Iran and the Netherlands are at the absolute polar opposites of views on freedom of speech. In Britain we would (I hope) be horrified at the suggestion that the media should not be allowed to offend national leaders. Our media (or, at least, a proportion of it) seems to exist for no purpose greater than to annoy, irritate and disdain our politicians. On the other hand, most of us would see a film which (apparently) ‘will show the Muslim holy book is an inspiration for murder’ as a tad on the injudicious side. Quite how this would play under incitement to religious hatred laws is a question which would have to be resolved by the courts, but most of us would baulk at such a hardline attack on another person’s religion. We were (sort of) all-right with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, because this was a Muslim criticising Islam. Geert Wilders has no Islamic credentials, and it could be argued that people who don’t understand something shouldn’t attack it. (As it happens, Islamic response to the Satanic verses was exactly the opposite — Rushdie was condemned in part because he was a Muslim: a non-believer would have been regarded with more tolerance).

This is in many ways similar to the furore around Theo van Gogh’s film, Submission, also made with the help of a Dutch politician, then then MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh, who was killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004, described his 10 minute film as a ‘political pamphlet’. Its aim, ostensibly, was to demonstrate a link between the Qu’ran and abuse of women. Following Van Gogh’s murder, mosques and Muslim schools were fire-bombed, and there were subsequent counterattacks against Christian churches.

It would be simplistic (though attractive to many) to paint this as ‘Dutch stand for freedom – good, Muslims oppose freedom -bad’. But things are never this simple. The same Ayaan Hirsi Ali who worked with Theo Van Gogh resigned from the Dutch Tweede Kamer (lower house) on May 16 2006 after a prolonged attempt by another politician to have her stripped of her Dutch Citizenship. The attempt prompted scandal in the Dutch parliament, eventually, albeit indirectly, leading to the collapse of the government. Those with long memories will recall that her resignation was 100 years – less two months – after the final exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus in the Dreyfus affair which shook France. The parallels are more than frightening: at the time, France represented itself as the bastion of freedom in all Europe. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all except Jews, who could be sloppily tried and deprived of all three of these virtues. Today, the Netherlands stands as the most outspoken proponent (perhaps alongside Denmark) of freedom in the entire world. Unless, of course, you are a Muslim or a foreigner, in which case things may not turn out as well for you.

In England, we have the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that Sharia could become a part of our legal outlook. In Holland, they are making films deliberately aimed at denigrating the Qu’ran. In Iran and the rest of the Middle-East, they are signing charters which forbid the criticism of Arab leaders.

What can we conclude from this week’s furores?

First, we must accept that there are fundamentally different views of the meaning of freedom in post-Christian Europe and in the Middle East. It is occasionally argued that the views most often associated with Islam are those of an extremist minority. Perhaps, but the charter which threatens to ban Al Jazeera satellite television is not the work of a minority of extremists, but of main stream Arab states – states with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships.

Second, we must accept that, whatever other states may adopt, in Britain we have a democratic tradition which depends on this post-Christian freedom of expression, which is a limited freedom, but not a strongly limited one. Our kind of democracy cannot function without this freedom. It might be argued that this demonstrates that our kind of democracy is the wrong kind, but only within the conscious paradox that one could not put forth that sort of argument in any other context.

Third, we must accept that it is incumbent upon us, if we are to maintain and propagate this kind of democracy in a wider global community, that we do so responsibly. But responsibility is something that people do themselves, not have done to them. The only person who could legitimately stop Wilders from producing the film he has produced is Wilders himself. However, the culture he is working in (a culture which I understand somewhat, as I am married into it) is one which celebrates giving offence as the mark of true freedom of speech.

Fortunately, it is not for us to determine the culture of the Netherlands. But we are able to determine our own culture. Freedom of speech is incredibly precious to us. Which is why we must propagate it by using it responsibly – not shying away from the true issues, but, equally, not giving needless offence for the sake of giving offence. That is neither liberal, nor democratic.

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