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Umbrage and Flummery

I wasn’t going to comment on Geert Wilders’ short film, Fitna, largely because it’s been done to death elsewhere and because, despite the ridiculous fuss, it’s actually rather boring. Fitna’s content, such as it is, will be familiar to anyone who reads Robert Spencer, Andrew Bostom or the MEMRI media archive. Juxtaposing acts of terrorism with the sermons and Qur’anic verses that are used to justify them is old news, at least among those who pay attention. And while the texts cited certainly are used to mandate atrocity, and have been for centuries, there’s no attempt to explain the theological context or the lineage of these ideas, or how they’re propagated and rationalised. A much better film, which does provide some context and analysis, is Islam: What the West Needs to Know.

But while Wilders’ film is unoriginal and insubstantial, the reactions to it have been instructive. The company hosting Fitna online pulled it after receiving threats to its staff “of a very serious nature”, which confirms the dismal fact that Islamist thuggery - whose roots we must not speak of – all too often works. (However, such is the nature of the intartubes, the film can still be found on any number of sites.) And, as expected, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the “offensively anti-Islamic film” and claimed, unconvincingly, that, “the right of free speech is not at stake here.”

In the Guardian, Ali Eteraz described Fitna as “an effort to turn the entirety of Islam into a demonic edifice” – which may or may not be Wilders’ personal view, but is a somewhat loaded reading of the film. Wilders may well be an objectionable self-regarding oaf, as Eteraz and others claim, but that doesn’t address the fundamental issues. It simply avoids them. Instead we get: “Most people familiar with the Qur’an… accept that you can have the Qur’an say pretty much whatever you want.” This is another variation of the “Oh, but all religions can be twisted to mean anything” evasion (discussed at length here) and is based on an idle assumption that Islam has no theological features and precedents that make it unusual among religions. Eteraz also bemoaned the “disgusting conflations of the Qur’an with acts of violence, murder, kidnapping and anti-Semitism” – a statement that reveals an ignorance of Islamic history and jurisprudence that is almost, but not quite, funny.

As usual, umbrage and disgust are directed at those who point to the sacralising of terror by others, rather than those who actually make terror a matter of pious obligation. Would such reactions have been very different if more elevated minds – say, Robert Spencer, Ibn Warraq or Andrew Bostom - had made a film, any film, on the subject? Somehow, I think not.


I’ve often heard it argued, or rather asserted, that “Islamophobia” makes it more difficult to combat jihadist ideology and those who propagate it. But there’s an obvious problem with this. What is very often deemed “Islamophobic” is any attempt to highlight the roots of jihadism within Islamic history and teaching, and ultimately in the purported revelations of Muhammad himself. Thus, efforts to provide essential theological and historical context, as for instance by Spencer, Warraq and Bostom, are routinely denounced as “inflammatory”, “Islamophobic”, even “racist”. To mention the unedifying aspects of Islam’s prophet - which are central to any credible understanding of the jihadist phenomenon - is therefore very difficult to do without being denounced as xenophobic, hateful or in some way nefarious. The irony of this should not need pointing out.