A website promoting a short film by Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-immigration politician, has been taken offline by the Internet services company hosting it. This was not a judgment on the quality, morality or intellectual worth of the film: it was an act of fear.
I don’t care much for Wilders. His anti-Islam crusade is driven by racism. The 15 minute movie, Fitna, is said to portray the Qur’an as “fascist”. Now the company that was hosting the website for the movie, Network Solutions, has pulled the plug, worried, it seems, about giving offence to Muslims. This is censorship.
I suspect that, even as an atheist and as someone concerned by the capacity that Islam seems to contain for extremism and violence, I too might be offended by the film. But that’s life in a free society. Civilisation and democracy – those things we regard as characteristics of an advanced society – do not guarantee protection against being offended by the acts, thoughts and opinions of others. Quite the reverse: in a truly free society, we can rely on being offended regularly. Only in a world in which everyone thinks the same way can we eradicate dissent and difference of opinion. That would require a successful totalitarian regime – something that hasn’t happened yet and, I hope, never will.
So while Wilders’ film might be offensive to some, possibly deliberately so, if we value a free and open society we must accommodate it. Indeed, only in a free and open society will we have the ability to judge, with unskewed perspective, the worth of this film. My guess is that, without the reaction that it seems calculated to create, the film would simply slide rapidly into obscurity. Wilders can enjoy a high profile only by whipping up such a froth of controversy. I’m sure he’s enjoying every moment of this, so perhaps, as censorship goes, it’s not an especially egregious example.
This fuss highlights an important issue, though – that our freedoms are vulnerable to threats from many directions. An overbearing state is the traditional enemy. One’s thoughts immediately go to George Orwell’s 1984. But even there Orwell was careful to show that the people were oppressed by themselves, by their internalisation of the regime’s mindset. That’s how totalitarianism works in both the political and religious spheres. One becomes afraid to err.
Back in the real world, we can see that free speech is easily curbed by fear. Special-interest groups – from Muslim extremists to corporations – through the weapons of violent protest or aggressive lawyers can create a climate in which people or weaker organisations (Network Solutions in this case) act against the interests of freedom out of fear of the consequences. A small group can thus wield power out of all proportion to its size or actual capabilities. Extremist Muslims can, through past acts and current threats, coerce others into acts of repression regardless of the legal, ethical or moral worth of their arguments. Network Solutions said it had suspended the hosting of Wilders’ film because it had “received a number of complaints”. But I don’t believe for one moment that the company took action because it judged the complaints to be valid. That’s not its business. It did so because it feared the possible repercussions.