It's the nature of free-speech laws that the times we must defend them most forcefully are the times they are tested by the most extreme forms of speech. Yesterday’s visit to New York by Dutch MP Geert Wilders, the maker of the controversial anti-Islam film Fitna, belongs in that category. After sitting through the film, I can see why Wilders doesn’t make for an easy-to-embrace First Amendment hero.
First, the obvious problem with the European First Amendment plan, which went unmentioned in the speech: Wilders has called for banning the Koran entirely. How does he reconcile this position with his new party platform as free-speech martyr?
Wilders became an international celebrity earlier this month when he was essentially banned from the UK. After he showed up with a copy of Fitna, he was detained for several hours at Heathrow Airport and then sent packing, with British officials saying he represented a security threat.
Op-ed columnists and bloggers on the left and right quickly denounced Britain's move as a suppression of free speech, seeing shades of the cowardice of news organizations who capitulated to extremists in refusing to reprint the Danish cartoons that set off anti-Western riots in 2006. And rightly so—no good can come of cravenly giving in to the extremists threatening Wilders' life, no matter what he has to say.
But whether the decision to let him in was right or not, let's not be so hasty to label Wilders a hero before actually seeing his work. On Monday, Wilders brought it to a luncheon thrown in his honor at the Four Seasons, which was hosted by the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank. And it’s worth pointing out that the film is, to put it bluntly, atrocious. It's not so much a documentary as a rapidly moving set of flashing Clockwork Orange-style images, featuring Koranic verses followed by the most grotesque news footage of terror humanly possible, with a soundtrack of Islamic clerics again and again pronouncing death to the infidels, all designed to instill a visceral hatred for all things Muslim. Nothing was too taboo for Wilders: graphic depictions of the 9/11 attacks, London bus bombings, and hostage decapitations, all shown in rapid sequence, ending with a blunt subtitled message “Stop Islamisation Now” and a simulated scene of someone ripping out a page from the Koran. At least one audience member walked out in disgust mid-film and, at the very least, the drumbeat of death wails and charred corpses did little to whet people's appetite for the filet of sole the Four Seasons staff was serving the guests.
Nonetheless, the film finished to thunderous approval from the audience. Shortly before the film, Hudson Institute president Herb London had introduced Wilders as “my hero” and the mostly hard-line conservative crowd gave little indication that they felt any differently. When Wilders himself took the podium, it was clear he had them in the palm of his hand.
As the blond, Liberace-coifed Wilders went on about the threat of Islam and the sanctity of free speech, his guests looked on with teary-eyed admiration, often interrupting with applause. “The dearest of our many freedoms is unfortunately under attack all throughout Europe,” Wilders said. “Free speech is no longer a given. What we once considered a natural element of our existence is now something we once again have to battle for.”
Mindful of the American audience, Wilders kept the attention solidly on free speech and mostly generic condemnations of Islamic extremism, playing up his efforts to get a First Amendment passed for the European Union that would nullify Britain and other countries' overly restrictive hate-speech laws. After the event, I sat down with Wilders to discuss his agenda in more detail while he signed autographs for his fans.
First, the obvious problem with his European First Amendment plan: Wilders has called for banning the Koran entirely. How does he reconcile this position with his new party platform as free-speech martyr?
“I'm the one who normally opposes the banning of books, this looks very contradictory,” Wilders acknowledged. However, he explained, “the left” and “liberals” applauded a ban on Mein Kampf and the Koran should fall under a similar category, even if his proposed First Amendment law were passed in Europe.
“I believe that with the First Amendment—it’s also the case in the Netherlands—the red line is still incitement of immediate violence and this is the case of the Koran,” Wilders said. “It's right in there: 'kill them' and 'seize them.'”
Then there's the pesky issue, immigration aside, of how to reduce the number of Muslims currently in Holland, whom Wilders regards as a permanent fifth column. Wilders’ approach favors the carrot and the stick. First, institute payments to Muslims who leave the country (“on a voluntary basis”), then kick out all Muslim criminals by force, including natural-born citizens.
“If they commit a crime and commit it again they should be sent away, even if it means they should be denaturalized and stripped of Dutch citizenship," Wilders said.
I asked Wilders what his thoughts were on American Muslims, who have assimilated with far less social unrest than in Europe.
“Have you heard of ' taqiyya?'” Wilders said, referring to a provision in Islamic law in which believers can conceal their faith in order to escape physical harm and persecution. “ Taqiyya means Muslims can lie. They are even rewarded to lie, and they should lie. I'm not saying all do, but most of the time it's Muslims living under non-Muslim rule in non-Muslim countries. Taqiyya means that they can fool and lie and are allowed, even have incentive, to lie until they become stronger and change their tune.”
The explanation bore a creeping resemblance to anti-Semites' historic use of the Kol Nidre prayer on Yom Kippur, in which religious oaths made before God are declared void, to inaccurately claim that Jews had carte blanche to lie.
I asked if he thought America's former ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, might be a sleeper agent by this logic. Of course not, Wilders assured me with a smile. He clarified his philosophy: There are some moderate Muslim individuals in this world, like Khalilzad, but no such thing as a moderate Muslim religion, therefore the only solution is to rid the world of Islam. Plus, a lot of the supposedly moderate individuals are only faking it until the moment they can stage a coup and turn America into New Iran. Why do people keep confusing his position?
Wilders' case has drawn comparisons to another Dutch opponent of Islamic extremism: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who served in the Dutch parliament before being removed in 2006 over inaccuracies in her asylum application from Somalia. She has lived with constant threats on her life ever since she wrote a short feminist film critical of religious subjugation of women in Islam. The film's director, Theo Van Gogh, was brutally murdered by a Muslim zealot over the film, sparking an international debate over assimilation and free speech in Europe. I called Hirsi Ali to ask her what she thought of Wilders' politics.
“I think that’s ridiculous, and I've been very hard on him for that,” Hirsi Ali said when asked about Wilders' call for a ban on the Koran and mass deportations. “He and I are not friends at all.”
Hirsi Ali nonetheless said she was glad Wilders was bringing attention to Europe's poor record of assimilation. She opposes Britain's decision to bar him.
“It's only going to win him more popularity,” she said. “He is hounded, he's demonized, he's prosecuted—what people are trying to say is he's the problem, not that Islam is the problem. I was treated pretty much the same way… along with anybody who goes against the establishment creed that the problems of assimilation have nothing to do with cultural factors and only socioeconomic factors.”
And therein lies the problem. By banning Wilders, Britain has handed him the kernel of high ground that allows him to spread his views farther and wider than ever before. If they had the sense to side with free speech and let him screen his unwatchable film in peace, he'd likely have been ignored as yet another attention-seeking kook. Instead, one is forced to waste a perfectly nice afternoon defending an abhorrent xenophobe whose devotion to his bleached-blond hair almost certainly exceeds his devotion to actual free speech. Thanks a lot, Mr. Prime Minister.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for the New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.