Netherlands braced for Muslim anger as politician releases 'anti-Islam' film

For a film that lasts just 10 minutes and for which no one has even seen a trailer, it is creating one hell of an uproar. The cinematic debut from the anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders has forced the Netherlands to wrestle with the limits of its age-old tradition of free speech and stirred up anxieties about a multicultural society.

The film, billed by Mr Wilders as an illustration of how the Koran inspires people "to do the worst things", is the latest provocation from the maverick MP who has compared Islam's sacred text to Hitler's Mein Kampf, tried to ban the burqa and the building of mosques and called for all Muslims in the Netherlands either to give up their religion or go back to their own countries.

In a sign of how preoccupied the government is with the impending fallout, the Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, made an extraordinary statement before the Wilders film was even finished, let alone screened.

"It has become apparent that concerns exist, both here and abroad, that the film could be offensive, potentially inviting heated reactions that could affect public order, public safety and security and the economy," he said at a weekly briefing. "The government is preparing for the possible repercussions that the broadcast of the film could have, internationally as well as domestically." But there is no suggestion of a ban.

Mr Wilders had promised to screen his film today, saying he would post it on the internet if no willing Dutch broadcaster could be found. But he has since been quoted as saying that the film will not debut for a couple of weeks. When contacted yesterday, his spokesman refused to confirm or deny any release date.

Meanwhile, imams are being urged to preach calm at Friday prayers, while mayors across the country have been put on alert, as have Dutch embassies around the world.

Zainab al-Touraihi, a member of the Contact Group Between Muslims and the Government, said: "It's ridiculous that a film that's not even come out yet is dominating and getting so much attention. But as time approaches, people are getting scared.

"I know Wilders is a man who says crazy things, but now he's going to visualise them. Words on paper can touch you, but a movie packs more of a punch."

The prevailing sentiment on the streets of The Hague is that Mr Wilders has the right to say what he likes, swiftly followed by a desire that he reflect on the consequences of those words.

As the Prime Minister diplomatically put it: "This country enjoys a long tradition of freedom of expression, religion and belief. This country also has a tradition of respect, tolerance and responsibility. The government will honour these traditions and calls upon everyone to do the same."

If, as has been rumoured in the Dutch press, Mr Wilders rips or burns the Koran on camera, the images would be available across the world within minutes. Fears of a backlash are strong, especially given the anger that boiled over in 2005 after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohamed.

Already, an Iranian parliamentarian has warned that he might call on the government to review its relations with the Netherlands, and on a visit to Europe this month, the Grand Mufti of Syria declared that any desecration of the Koran by Mr Wilders "will simply mean he is inciting wars and bloodshed".

But the film furore is also hitting the Dutch closer to home, reviving painful memories of the turmoil that followed the murder of the film director Theo van Gogh in 2004. A distant relative of his namesake Vincent, Van Gogh had made a film, Submission, which accused Islam of condoning violence against women and projected quotes from the Koran on to naked female bodies. He was gunned down by an Islamist militant in broad daylight on a busy Amsterdam street, before having his throat slit.

Today, on Linnaeusstraat, away from Amsterdam's picture-postcard canals, you have to look hard to find any sign of what happened on that November morning. On the rust-coloured asphalt of the cycling lanes are two teaspoon-sized indentations that a local says are the marks left by two of the bullets fired.

But the scars on the Dutch national psyche are much more visible. "I never expected anything like that would happen here in Holland. It was very strange, a total shock," said Ed Mulder, who owns an opticians opposite the spot where the outspoken film director died. "But if it's happened once, it could happen again."

Van Gogh's murder ignited a wave of religious violence, with mosques and churches being firebombed. And it also provoked much soul-searching in a country that had prided itself on its tolerance. The fact that the murderer had been born and brought up in Holland led many to question how well the country's one million Muslims were integrated into the nation's population of 16 million.

Mr Wilders was already known for his anti-Islamic diatribes at that time and was swiftly given round-the-clock protection, which he still has to this day. This week, it emerged that the government's top counter-terrorism official had reportedly warned Mr Wilders that he might have to leave the country if he released the film.

But in an open letter to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant on Wednesday, the politician refused to accept any responsibility for what he described as the "hysterical panic" surrounding his unaired movie. "[That] says everything about the nature of Islam. Nothing about me," he wrote. "Islam is an intolerant ideology... within which there is no room for matters like self-reflection and self-criticism."

Mr Wilders' Party for Freedom won nine of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament at the last election, but it regularly polls above that level. Some attribute his popularity to a talent for headline-grabbing soundbites, such as warnings of a "tsunami of Islamisation"; some suggest that his larger-than-life persona stands out in an otherwise uncharismatic political scene.

For others, he is carrying on the torch of Pim Fortuyn, the pioneer of anti-Islamic politics in Holland before he was murdered in 2002. Like Fortuyn, Mr Wilders taps into the anti-establishment feeling and voices the opinions of those who blame Muslims for all that is bad in their lives.

"The big political parties are almost afraid to address it, and that strengthens some people's sense of abandonment and allows Mr Wilders a way in," explained Tofik Dibi, a Green Party MP.

He added: "I feel so disappointed that everything is getting overshadowed by Wilders and we do not get round to discussing the important underlying issues. We should be properly discussing the place of religion, of Islam, in a Western society, but he is holding the country in a headlock."

What they have said about Islam

Geert Wilders

I believe we have been far too tolerant for far too long. We have to defend ourselves. Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches! (In reference to the Koran): Ban that wretched book like 'Mein Kampf' is banned!

Theo van Gogh

This book is called 'Allah knows best' because it is my dark suspicion that we are on the verge of the new Middle Ages of Mecca; and because I feel, as a professional atheist, very unsafe.

Pim Fortuyn

I don't say send them home.I just say the Netherlands is a small country. We are already overcrowded, there's no more room and we must shut the borders. I don't hate Islam. I consider it a backward culture. I have travelled much in the world and wherever Islam rules it's just terrible.

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