The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Getting over fitna

I recently watched the new short film by the Dutch right-wing MP Geert Wilders, Fitna. It's not like I was expecting anything but racist drivel, but I was particularly underwhelmed by this effort, which essentially consists of quotes of the Quran super-imposed with pictures of veiled women "taking over our streets" and much complaining of how many mosques are being built in Holland. In other words, it's the usual pretty thin racist crap about how foreigners are coming to our country to steal our jobs and seduce our women, and how they look different, thus breaking the harmonious landscapes of the nation's streets. For some reason, I was actually expecting something a bit more high-minded. I think Theo van Gogh would have delivered something better, this looks like the ad campaign for something like Vlaams Belang (the racist Flemish party in Belgium, which I am more familiar with having spent much time there -- I remember as a kid in the 1980s seeing its predecessor, the Vlaams Blok, putting up stickers with the charming inscription "all Moroccan women are whores" on street lamps.)

I suppose the low artistic and intellectual merit of fitna largely explained why it has been ignored aside from the media's desperate search for an angry reaction of the kind we had over the Danish cartoons (a reaction driven largely by governments for their own purposes, as in Syria). You could have had a film looking at some of the real problems with Islam as it has been practiced for centuries, or how many Islamists advocate it should be practiced now. The issue of uneven rights for women is a real problem, and just like there is atrocious racism in Western societies against non-whites, there is scandalous discrimination in many Islamic countries against non-Muslims. I don't care how many hadiths you pull out of your hats to show the prophet 's best friend was a Christian or whatever else. The proof is in the practice, and particularly in Arab patriarchal societies, the practice hasn't exactly been great and the moral leadership, with some notable exceptions, has been even poorer.

The word "fitna" is Arabic for "discord" and is usually the term used to refer to the fight over the succession of the caliphate that led to the split into Shia and Sunni Islam. It's an odd title for the movie, which never quite explains what it means or why it was chosen, but perhaps an apt one to describe the media-driven hullabaloo over its coverage. Sure, Wilders may get threats from some idiots, and could even get killed. This is profoundly regrettable, as is the fact that Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others are driven into hiding or have to live under constant guard. But beyond this you can't quite shake the feeling that this story is part of a larger meme of civilizational conflict editors have decided to run with, no matter what the actual reaction on the street is, the quality of the debate, and the desire by the people writing these books and making these movies to get their 15 minutes of fame by being "courageous contrarians."

I suspect that, mostly, we don't really care about these movies, cartoons and books. I'd rather reserve my energy to defend the likes of Salman Rushdie, an author of considerable talent whose Satanic Verses had real artistic merit, or focus on the real problems with the way police handle urban Arab immigrant youths in Western Europe, than spend my time playing "clash of civilisations" over silly cartoons in provincial Danish newspapers or the crappy home movie of a Dutch politician with silly hair. This stuff is fitna for the sake of fitna, or really, fitna without a cause.