A Member of Parliament for an opposition party that represents a small proportion of Dutch voters has made a critical film about the Koran, a book that is sacred to roughly 1.2 billion Muslims. The announcement of this film was for months the cause of considerable disquiet and discussion in the Netherlands and the rest of the world. On Thursday 27 March the film was released on the internet. It shows images of atrocities and blames them on Islam and the Koran.
Let me begin by emphasising that these views do not in any way reflect the perspective or policy of the Dutch government. The Dutch government condemns terrorist attacks, whether they are committed in the name of Islam or other religions or for any other motive. Terror must never be a means to pursue any goal. But Islam must not be equated with the commission of atrocities. The vast majority of Muslims condemn extremism and violence, of which many Muslims are also the victims. The Dutch government emphatically dissociates itself from this film because of its invidious generalisations and its polarising effect.
Islam has a clearly visible place in Dutch society. There are more than 800,000 people in the Netherlands with roots in the Islamic world, about 5.3% of our population. In recent decades, Islam in all its diversity has had many opportunities to flourish as a religion within the limits of the law. Islamic institutions, associations, media and schools have become familiar features of our country. Over 450 mosques have been built on Dutch soil. This development reflects the well-established Dutch tradition of religious tolerance. Muslims make a major contribution to dialogue within Dutch society, notably through their participation in consultative bodies. Two members of the Dutch government have roots in the Islamic world: Ahmed Aboutaleb, State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment, and Nebahat Albayrak, State Secretary for Justice. I mention these facts to show that in general, Muslims in the Netherlands work together well and live in harmony with non-Muslims. The Dutch government is heartened by the balanced initial responses to the film’s release from Muslim organisations in the Netherlands.
There is no point in trying to disguise the fact that contact with other cultures, customs and faiths is exacerbating tensions. On the contrary, it is good to discuss these tensions openly and frankly. The question is, however: how should we deal with these tensions? How can we bridge the differences? The Alliance of Civilisations, an initiative of the Turkish and Spanish governments, provides governments and civil society organisations with a forum to search together for constructive responses. I warmly welcome this initiative. That is why the Netherlands has since the outset been one of the countries that support the Alliance in principle and practice. This film has the opposite aim: instead of offering a constructive response to the challenges we face today, it is spreading fear and turning different groups against each other.
We should condemn not religions, but rather people and groups who abuse religion to achieve their ends through violence. Islam is not the problem. Muslims, Christians and people with other convictions can coexist in complete harmony. The problem is not religion, but the abuse of religion to spread hatred and intolerance.
It makes no sense to see the world in terms of a ‘clash of civilisations’. We should focus instead on what we have in common, and on how despite our differences we can live together in peace on the basis of shared universal convictions. Dialogue, not provocation, is the way forward. There is no need for us to shy away from criticising one another, but we should formulate and respond to criticisms respectfully. Criticism, even wounding criticism, can never justify aggression and threats.
Freedom of religion is a universal human right, a right guaranteed by the Dutch Constitution. This right must not be eroded. Freedom of religion means freedom to profess one’s own religion, but also the duty to respect other people’s religious or philosophical convictions. It goes without saying that Muslims in the Netherlands enjoy freedom of religion. The Dutch Constitution also protects freedom of expression. This means that all the inhabitants of the Netherlands can publicly express their views without prior permission from the authorities. There is no censorship in the Netherlands. Whoever has criticisms of the doctrines of a specific religion has the right to express them. Only the courts can determine whether the law has been broken after utterances have been made.
However, I would not interpret freedom of expression as a licence to insult other people at will. Everyone has the responsibility to show respect for the rights and reputations of others. The Dutch government repeatedly drew the attention of the politician in question to the possible consequences of his film and appealed to his sense of responsibility. The Dutch government regrets that he nonetheless decided to release this film. The film serves no purpose whatsoever other than to trample on people’s feelings.
Further polarisation is in no one’s interests. Our top priority is to ensure that there is enough space to engage in dialogue, on the basis of mutual respect and the principles of the rule of law. The Dutch government will pursue an open, mature dialogue and cooperation among the communities in the Netherlands and among societies internationally. I trust that we will not let the film distract us from this shared responsibility. Let us keep a cool head while preserving the warmth of our relationships.