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RELIGION: Unease Rises Over Anti-Islam Film

Irene de Vette

ROTTERDAM, Mar 26 2008 (IPS) - In announcing the release of his anti-Quran film, Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament, has generated a swell of media attention in the Netherlands in the past months. Politicians have urged him not to go ahead with the release of the film &#39Fitna&#39 because they say its controversial content may lead to national and international unrest.

The heated public debate revolves around the film&#39s expected content and the limits of freedom of speech. National safety precautions have been taken. Still, no one has seen any footage.

&#39Fitna&#39, usually translated as &#39civil strife&#39 or &#39ordeal&#39, is expected to have desecrating content. It is still unsure whether the movie will be streamed online before Apr. 1 as announced.

Last Sunday, the U.S. hosting service suspended the site&#39s content, saying it was investigating a possible violation of its acceptable use policy. Earlier negotiations between TV networks and Wilders failed because they refused to broadcast unseen material in its entirety, one of Wilder&#39s demands. Wilders is leader of the right-wing one-man faction Freedom Party.

In a speech Feb. 29, Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende said he was "gravely concerned" about the film. "We defend our core values of freedom and respect. We guarantee the freedom of speech and freedom of religion – for Muslims as well as for all others," he said.

Balkenende has urged Wilders to cancel screening of the film, fearing repercussions against Dutch citizens and the economy, similar to the backlash in Denmark after the publication of a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad.

"The cabinet may go down on its knees before Islam and capitulate, but I will never do that. The film will be released," Wilders said in reply.

The National Coordinator for Counterterrorism says the country is at increased risk of terrorist attacks. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is concerned about the safety of Dutch troops in Afghanistan.

During the last summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Dakar, Senegal, Mar. 13 and 14, the cartoons and the film were high on the agenda. Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said the 57 member countries of IOC "will be expected to take appropriate decisions against such acts of Islamophobia."

During the past months, the National Expert Centre on Discrimination (NECD) in the Netherlands, part of the Public Prosecution Office, has been flooded with police complaints on Wilders&#39 statements, alleging hate dissemination.

Freedom of speech is limited in the Netherlands by certain restrictions such as immediate threat or discrimination. "We have to review each case separately," a spokesperson for NECD told IPS. "Discriminatory statements are always judged within a certain context. Whether a statement is unlawful depends on who is stating what, against whom and when. A cartoon, for instance, has inherent caricatural characteristics, and can thus be insulting."

Some of Wilders&#39 statements, she added, "may be derogatory, but still be within the law."

The Dutch Islamic Federation has asked for an independent expert to judge if the film is offending Muslims and Islam, before it is released. If it is seen to be, the federation wants the film banned.

Meanwhile, public figures and citizens are organising counteractions against Wilder. Hundreds of &#39Sorry for Fitna&#39 clips have been posted on YouTube over the past days.

"We were irritated by the way Wilders holds the Netherlands under his spell with a film that hasn&#39t even been shown," Willem Velthoven of the cultural organisation Mediamatic told IPS. "But we also hope that the surge of alternative Fitna clips will push the actual film down in search engine results. They also show foreigners that there are so many people who don&#39t agree at all with Wilders."

"For months, we all have been talking about a film that no one has seen yet, while Wilders sits back and refuses all debate. It&#39s a clever trick to retain the attention," Rachida Azough, director of Kosmopolis, an organisation for intercultural dialogue, told IPS. "Under the veil of freedom of speech, Wilders thinks he has special rights. No political faction has ever been allowed to show an unseen political movie in its entirety. But let him show the film, and then we&#39ll talk."

Others say silence will be the best response, "Whatever is the content, one understands (the film) is pure provocation," said Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, and chair in &#39Identity and Citizenship&#39 at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. But he warned that "an uncontrolled over-emotional reaction is always possible, and some can shape it through some inflammatory statements or &#39protest orchestration&#39. No one can predict where it is going to end."

So far, everyone is still waiting.

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