FaithWorld

How should the media handle the Dutch anti-Koran film?

Geert Wilders, pictured during an interview with Reuters television in 2005Geert Wilders doesn’t do things by halves. The anti-Koran film that this far-right politician has been working on in recent months will be finished very soon. He doesn’t know if any Dutch broadcaster will touch it because of the controversy it has already stirred up. So he has arranged to have “Fitna” put out as a webcast as well. That should ensure that the film can be seen all around the world and not just in the Netherlands.

“It is very good news,” Wilders told us , adding that the film would “definitely be finished this week.” After that, he has to negotiate with Dutch television programmes to see who — if any — will broadcast it. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende appealed last month for restraint over the film and Iran has urged the Netherlands to prevent this “provocative and satanic act on the basis of European Convention on Human Rights.”

The Dutch foreign and justice ministers met Wilders on Wednesday to warn him of the possible consequences of showing his film, including possible charges against him for hate speech. According to the Volkskrant daily and NOS television, Wilders called the meeting “one hour of pure intimidation” and left it determined to work “full speed ahead” on his project.

Nobody has yet seen a 15-minute film about the Koran, which Wilders calls a fascist book, but it has already led to anti-Dutch protests and outraged Muslims worldwide. Clips purporting to be his film have appeared on YouTube, prompting a blockage in access to the popular site in Pakistan that temporarily closed it down worldwide.

A mosque under construction in Rotterdam, 31 May 2006/Jerry LampenA network of Muslim communities in the Netherlands is planning to hold an “open mosque day” around the country when the film is screened to appeal for calm and dialogue. Politicians and celebrities have taken out full-page newspaper adverts to pledge their commitment to tolerance and social harmony.

Q&A: Karen Armstrong on Pakistan, Islam and secularisation

Karen Armstrong at an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, 3 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedKaren Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.

Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?

A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?

Anti-Koran film keeps the Dutch holding their breath

Geert Wilders speaks during an interview with Reuters Television, 3 March 2005/Jerry LampenThis is getting to look like a striptease…

The far-right politician Geert Wilders, whose planned anti-Koran film has the Netherlands holding its breath, has revealed that his long-awaited opus will be delayed by two months. There had been speculation he might show it in his party’s broadcasting slot on Dutch television on Friday evening. Viewers instead got shots of Wilders walking along a beach repeating his complaints about Muslims (shown a few minutes into this Dutch TV interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali). For more on his views, he’s here and here spelling them out in English.

The 10-minute movie is now due out in March, Wilders said in an interview in Saturday’s De Telegraaf. This comes after a rising chorus of concern about possible protests against the film and a call from Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende for restraint and reports that Dutch embassies were preparing to evacuate Dutch citizens abroad if things got out of hand.

LoudspeakerThe Rotterdam daily NRC Handelsblad smelt a rat. “Geert Wilders says he’s making a film. Nobody has seen it yet. But his plan has kept the media and politicians in its grip for two months now,” it commented. “In terms of political PR, Geert Wilders is putting on a great showWilders can dominate the news because journalists and politicians are sytematically allowing themselves to be taken hostage by him. Without a loudspeaker, there is no platform. Without political reactions, there is no series to watch.”

Concern mounts as Netherlands readies for anti-Islam film

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, 23 June 2007/Yves HermanConcern is mounting in the Netherlands as the country prepares for a film about the Koran by a far-right populist known for his hostility to Islam. It reached the point last Friday that Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende publicly appealed for restraint. A former Malaysian ambassador in The Hague has said the reaction could make the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy look like “a picnic.”

Geert Wilders, who wants to ban the Koran as a “fascist” book and has warned of a “tsunami of Islamisation” in the Netherlands, has proceeded with the film despite warnings from the Dutch justice and foreign ministers. (We blogged on this last November when the warnings came). It’s not clear when it will be broadcast, but it is expected soon. Wilders has denied reports that it will be shown on Friday Jan. 25. There is already a spoof on YouTube.

The last Dutchman who made a film critical of Islam, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by an Islamist radical in 2004. That unleashed a violent anti-Muslim backlash in the Netherlands. Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish daily sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world.

On the haj: circling the Kaaba in Mecca

The Kabaa, 24 Dec 2007“Now’s the moment to say special prayers, for your family or anyone else you want to pray for,” said my Lebanese companion Ahmed. As he spoke, we caught a first glimpse of the black cloth cover of the Kaaba through the arches of the King Abdul Aziz Gate into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I tried to remember all the people who had asked for prayers and mentally checked off their names, just in case. We picked our way through the crowds, some in the plain white cloth worn by pilgrims, others in ordinary street wear, according to their status under the complicated rules of the haj pilgrimage.

The overwhelming impression was of dazzling white marble and of arches with white plaster crenellations receding into the distance. The Saudi government has spared no expense in making this mosque, built around the focal point of daily worship for hundreds of millions of Muslims, into a monument inspiring awe and wonder among the millions who visit every year — especially those here for the first time. But the austere simplicity of the Kaaba itself, a plain stone cubic building covered in black cloth and wrapped in Arabic writing in golden silk, makes an even greater impression on visitors. Many raise their arms as it looms into sight from the edge of the inner courtyard, as if to protect themselves from some mysterious power, or perhaps to absorb some of the blessings they think it radiates.

Muslim pilgrims wait for a bus outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 14 Dec. 2007We skipped down the marble steps into the courtyard and made our way towards the Kaaba, joining a crowd of several thousand performing the tawaf ritual – the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, the first part of the umra ceremony which pilgrims usually perform on arrival in Mecca. The tawaf ritual predates Islam, possibly by many hundreds of years, and its origins may be lost in the mists of time. Muslims associate the Kaaba with the prophet Ibrahim, the biblical Abraham, seen as the founder of a pure monotheism which slowly declined until revived in the 7th century by the prophet of Islam.

Are “moderate” Muslims mum when they should speak out?

Ayaan Hirsi AliAyaan Hirsi Ali has an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Islam’s Silent Moderates” today asking why moderate Muslims have not protested loudly against the “teddy bear case” in Khartoum and the Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia. She makes some good points, especially asking why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has not said anything. The OIC is quick to defend Islam and Muslim countries when the criticism comes from the outside, including from her.

Then she wrote:

For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Koran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign and so on. But the evidence mounts up.

“Why are the Muslims silent?” has been a mantra of many Western critics since at least the time of 9/11. It comes up fairly regularly after Islamist attacks or egregious cases of human rights violations in the Muslim world. It’s true that many Muslim leaders have avoided speaking out. But there have also been quite a few Muslim condemnations of terrorism that seem to have gone unnoticed. Something has been changing on this front and it has been evident these days. Hirsi Ali has either missed it or does not want to mention it.

Is another “West-versus-Islam” clash on the horizon?

Two Dutch politicians seem to be doing their best to stir up a controversy with Muslims. The far-right MP Geert Wilders says he wants to make a film for television about the Koran. Ehsan Jami, an Iranian-born local councillor who launched a Committee of Ex-Muslims in September, plans a film called “The Life of Mohammad.” Both are due to be ready early next year.

The body of murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh, 2 Nov. 2004Shades of the bloody protests over the Danish Prophet Mohammad cartoons and Theo van Gogh‘s murder for his film “Submission”…

Are we in for another “free-speech-versus-blasphemy” (or, to put it more bluntly, “West-versus-Islam”) clash?

Turkey’s Veiled Democracy

The Rome trip’s over and it’s back to other interesting religion topics — like Islam in Turkey.

Mustafa AkyolThe evolution of Islam and politics in Turkey is one of the most interesting recent developments in the Muslim world. One of the most interesting writers following this is Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul journalist who is deputy editor of the English-language Turkish Daily News and regularly posts his TDN columns on his blog The White Path. Some of his articles require familiarity with today’s Turkish political scene, but his latest is an informative stand-back guide to how “Turkey now nurtures an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with modern values such as democracy, liberalism and capitalism.

Akyol’s blog flags the article as “Turkey’s Veiled Democracy [A Must-Read Article].” It’s published in the November/December issue of The American Interest (here it is in PDF). In it, Akyol surveys the emergence of modernising trends in Islam during the Ottoman Empire, the creation of the secularist Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the rise of modern “neo-orthodox” Muslims who formed the governing AKP party.

Muslim scholar questions Vatican understanding of Islam

Cardinal Jean-Louis TauranThe cautious Vatican reaction to the dialogue appeal from 138 Muslim scholars has prompted one of the signatories to question whether the top Catholic official for relations with Muslims understands Islam. More specifically, Aref Ali Nayed has asked how Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran can say that a serious theological dialogue with Muslims is not possible because they will not discuss the Koran in depth. This debate (discussed in an earlier post here) is dense and highly specialised. But it may be at this level that this unprecedented dialogue could take off or fail to ignite.

Nayed, a former professor at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome and main spokesman for the 138 scholars, flatly refutes Tauran’s view. He says Muslims have always interpreted the Koran and studied it both historically and linguistically. Their methods were even the forerunners of the “historical-critical” method that Christians use with the Bible, he says. Protestants began applying this “higher criticism” to the Bible in the 18th century and Catholics accepted it only in 1943, making them latecomers to this exercise in Nayed’s view. I am no specialist on these details and will need to hear reactions from Christian theologians.

Readers interested in Nayed’s argument can read it on the website of Islamica magazine or read Cindy Wooden’s story for the Catholic News Service on it. I’ll just quote the crisp conclusion:

Ball in Vatican’s court after Muslim dialogue appeal

Pope Benedict prays with Muslim clerics in IstanbulAn unprecedented call from 138 Muslim scholars for better Christian-Muslim understanding had a Warholesque 15-minutes-of- fame in most media last week. Their letter to world Christian leaders got covered widely in English-speaking media (including by Reuters) and much less so in many European countries, possibly because the news conferences presenting it were in London and Washington. Some reactions from Christian leaders were included in the reporting that day. The following day, the reaction from the Vatican — the main addressee of the letter that represents more than half of Christianity — made for another story (here is our report and the original Vatican Radio report in Italian).

The story has now faded from the headlines but it’s one of those developments that cry out for a next step. The Muslim scholars invited their Christian counterparts to a dialogue, so the ball is in the Christians’ court. More specifically, it’s in the Vatican’s court. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and most centralised branch of the Christian family. The Muslims also have a bone to pick with Pope Benedict, who just over a year ago gave his famous Regensburg speech that implied Islam was violent and irrational. That sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world and, in turn, inspired 38 Muslim scholars to write a first letter in October 2006 that denounced that violence, asked for a dialogue (which Benedict had suggested in Regensburg) and questioned his understanding of Islam.

The latest letter is a follow-up, with a far larger group of signatories and the more ambitious goal of engaging in a theological dialogue with Christians. The wealth of Koran and Bible quotes cited and the argument that Islam agrees with the heart of Christian teaching — to love God and neighbour — showed these scholars want a long and serious theological discussion with Christianity.