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On Geert Wilders And Other Threats To Liberal Society

Prior to Geert Wilders' release of the film, Fitna, Reason Magazine's Michael Moynihan wrote a piece on the subject, which is worth reading as he and I are about to engage in a mini-dialogue on many of the questions it raises.

Michael argued that while Wilders was "something of an extremist" and whose views on Islam were "both reductive and puerile" his film, once released, needed to be engaged "on its intellectual merits." Further, he argued that "not to support Wilders" was tantamount to acquiescing to "bullying" by "religious crackpots."

At the broad level, Michael and I agree that Wilders' film should not have been banned and needed to be engaged on its merits.

In my review of the film, I did precisely that. So did numerous other people, including Irshad Manji (in both English and Arabic), Sadegh Kabeer, (Iranian in the Middle East) and Mona Eltahawy (Egyptian in the US). Not one of these three Muslim dissenters — each with a long history of disavowing Muslim extremism — found Wilders' film interesting or coherent. The film is intellectually lacking.

Where I particularly disagree with Michael — and why I maintain that we owe nothing to Wilders — is over the fact that Wilders is a threat to liberal society. I do not believe that Wilders' views must be criminalized by the state, but they should be deemed out of the bounds of liberal society much the same way that we consider discrimination on the basis of gender unacceptable. Further, the threat of a civil and democratic discussion — yes, the threat of a discussion — about the criminality of his views should be left on the table as a deterrent. Our aim should be to rid liberal society of people like Wilders. This can only start if we ignore Michael’s exhortation about looking out for Wilders’ rights, and spend our time either ignoring or mocking him.

Wilders' obfuscations are pernicious. He conceals his xenophobic nativism by waving (incorrectly translated and randomly picked) verses of the Quran. Sprinkled in the middle of Fitna, which Wilders would have us believe is about the Quran, are Dutch news clippings included for no other reason than to provoke an emotional backlash against immigrants. This is why I don't believe this film had anything to do with theology. Fitna was nothing more than a veiled attack on the newest "outsider." Jews and Chinese in the past, the Polish in London today and Latinos here in the US, have been the butt of similar tactics by ideologues. Demagogues enjoy taking pot-shots at the things immigrants hold closest — in this case, the Quran. I have no doubt that if it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that Muslims held dear, Wilders would be trying to equate Muslims with Oompa-Loompas. The job of public intellectuals like Moynihan is to cut through the veneer and get to the heart of the matter.

Here, the heart of the matter is nativism, not Islam, and not whether Wilders has an unqualified right to speak.

Today, in Europe, immigrants from Muslim countries are viewed as being inherently incapable of becoming good citizens in the West. It reminds me of the late 19th century when discussion waged in Europe about how it was impossible for a Jew — who gives obeisance to Talmudic Law — to simultaneously give allegiance to the state.

Similarly, the threat of "Eurabia," promulgated by men like Wilders, is not very different from the threat of "Aztlan" raised by anti-immigrant forces in the US. Neither scenario is likely. But in a picture where immigrants are painted as gang-bangers, rapists, arms and drug dealers, rioters, and multiplying like the Borg, the narrative quickly shifts from irrational phantasmagoria to social policies that are either explicitly bigoted, or which turn a blind eye to the immigrants' concerns. This shifting is what men like Wilders excel at.

What Wilders manages to do with relative ease is to shift the discussion away from how power and resources should be apportioned between native and immigrant Europeans into a referendum on jihadism. This is wrong and unfair. By and large, European Muslim grievances with Europe are grievances with the state apparatuses — with unemployment, with police brutality, with poverty. Yet Wilders and his cohorts would have us believe that the issue is all of Islam all across the world and if you do not characterize immigrants' agitations in a theo-political manner then you are either "with the enemy" or have already turned into a "dhimmi." This is called missing the point.

A perfect example of this missing-the-point occurred during the riots by immigrant youth in France. The New York Times and various other news agencies took a barracking, right here at Jewcy, for referring to the rioters as "youth" and not as "Muslim." Yet, the fact was that the latest rounds of the riots were touched off not only by the 40% unemployment rate — a rate that matches Saudi Arabia's — among immigrant youth but the police mandate to deport 25,000 illegal aliens a year and the specific incident of the police rather bizarrely running over a pair of youth on a motorcycle. As the UK Spectator and Reuters both noted, what needn't have been about Islam, became about Islam.

If Wilders were interested in discussing extremism, jihadism or even Islamism, he would have done it in a way that allowed Muslims who oppose these things to join with him. However, he purposefully chooses to marginalize such people in order to pretend that they don't exist. In some quarters this is called bigotry. I’ve already pointed out, even dissenting Muslims are acknowledging that while Wilders shouldn't be banned, they are also feeling that he isn't someone to be taken seriously either. There are reasons for this, reasons having to do with the fact that the guy is not just a bore but also a boor. We don't jail boors, but we shouldn’t be particularly interested in what they are saying either.

What people like Wilders ultimately do is to encourage the worst parts of the discourse to feel empowered, whether Islamophobic or Islamophilic. I am, for example, not particularly surprised that on the heels of Wilders film we have news about French Muslim graves — from World War I no less — defiled by Islamophobic elements (which previously used Nazi imagery on Muslim graves). Nor am I surprised that around the world handmaidens of dictators have tried to stir violence in response to the film. (The Jamat-e-Islami’s protests are particularly disgusting given that they participated in the rigged 2002 elections of Pakistan and boycotted the 2008 elections because they were free and fair).

While I do not believe that we ought to be influenced by what ayatollahs and extremists on the other side of the globe think, I do think we ought to speak in a way that will promote our values: democracy, decency and exemplarism. When the philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty went to Tehran to criticize religious oligarchy, their lectures were attended by an astonishing 1500 people. Those of us who profess to support democracy cannot forget that in the world today our allies aren't people like Wilders, but those 1500 dissenters in Iran who brave torture and prison to exchange in the best of our ideas. If for no other reason than for the sake of their emancipatory project, we should reach out to them and tell them: As you fight your supremacists, we fight ours. The only way we can make this showing is if Wilders is aware that he is perpetually "this close" to losing his right to offend. I don't want Wilders criminalized but I certainly don't understand why I ought help make him more audacious.

At the end of the day, Michael, when I bully Wilders, it's not because I am a religious crackpot, or in league with any such people, or antagonistic to free speech, but because I consider Wilders a threat to our liberal principles (and so does the Dutch Parliament). As you said, people like Wilders have a right to offend, but simultaneously people like me have a right to chastise the offensive. My optimistic sense is that in liberal societies people like me far outnumber people like Wilders and always will. I happen to think this is a good thing.

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