Monday, March 31, 2008


Dutch politician Geert Wilders released on the Internet a film called 'Fitna' which is critical of Islam and warnings that it could spark protests and riots are spreading.

This is reminiscent of the Danish cartoon controversy where a Danish newspaper published several cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.  The newspaper announced that it was an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship, but when examples of the cartoons were reprinted in other countries, it led to protests and violence around the world which led to more than 100 deaths.

In 2004, Dutch film director Theo van Gogh received death threats and was subsequently murdered for "Submission", a 10-minute film about violence against women in Islamic societies.  Further back in 1988, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses earned him a fatwa from the Iranian Ayatollah calling for him to be killed.  (He's still alive and even got knighted in 2007 for his "services to literature.")

Now, it seems that another Dutch politician is working on a film project along the same lines.

What's with these Dutch people anyway?

In the Netherlands and many other Western countries, freedom of speech is an "inalienable right."  The idea is that in open debate, the people would recognized untruths and bad ideas as such, and would drop them and discredit their sources.  There is also a general view that freedom of speech is a right which will be used in a responsible manner.

In other societies (Singapore included), freedom of speech is not an inalienable right.  In Singapore, such liberties are considered subservient to a greater need to maintain social harmony and preventing any possibility of a rehash of the 1969 riots.  Other countries may have their own reasons.

But with the Internet, it is not just a cliché that boundaries are being torn down.

These days, with a combination of blogs, photoshop and digital video, anyone can aspire to join the ranks of Theo van Gogh and Rushdie (minus the knighthood; that's might still be quite difficult).

The very fact is that anyone -- American, Danish, Dutch or not -- can say anything they want, damn the consequences.

But the fact is we live in a world where there are extremists who believe that God has sanctioned them to kill others, and certain actions on the part of non-believers will only agitate them further, and may draw more others who are more moderate into the extremist fold.

IMO, whatever is said and whoever says it, there is simply no excuse for violence.  As we used to say when we were children, "sticks & stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."  Any fatwa which demands that somebody be physically hurt or killed is simply wrong.

That said, if the proponents of free speech are indeed after the complete package of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", they would do well to think twice before posting potentially inflammatory content on the Internet which may put lives at risk.  If you get killed or get death threats, "liberty and the pursuit of happiness" becomes quite moot or at least rather more difficult to attain.

Even if you are willing to pay the price personally, you should be considerate enough to avoid the possibility that others who share your nationality, race or religion and living space, might somehow suffer, in return for your right to shoot your mouth off.  For example, Dutch nationals in Muslim countries may be attacked, and Dutch businesses can probably expect boycotts.

So, when exercising your inalienable right to freedom of speech, please take a minute to consider that the rest of us have a right to peace and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

No comments: