If you've been reading this blog today, you might have seen that I've been engaged in a strong debate on the post below about the merits of right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who's in town today to show his anti-Islam film at the House of Lords.
Funnily enough (perhaps they'd been reading my earlier post, I don't know), just this afternoon I received an email from the secretary of the Leeds University Atheist Society telling me about how Leeds University Students' Union banned the society from screening Fitna at an event. The screening had been organised as part of an event entitled "Fitna: The Big Debate", which was to consist of a screening, followed by a debate on the issues it raises. So the motives for screening the film can't be called into question – this was not to be a one-sided event, and you can't really debate something if nobody has seen it. In this respect, the case is reminiscent of what happened with Jytte Klausen's book The Cartoons That Shook The World, the book about the Danish Muhammad cartoons in which the publisher Yale refused to include the Danish Muhammad cartoons.
But try telling that to the Leeds Student Union authorities, who told the Atheist Society that this attempt to hold a reasoned debate about a controversial issue contravened the University's "freedom of expression policy", which reads as follows:
"[the university] tolerates a wide range of views, political as well as academic, even when they are unpopular, controversial or provocative" and "the University has an explicit duty in law to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers. This duty includes a responsibility to ensure that the use of University premises is not denied to any individual or group on the grounds of the belief or views of that individual or any member of that group or on the grounds of the policy or objectives of the group."As the Atheist Society's Norman Ralph said:
"The entire situation is ridiculous. The university campus should be a bastion of free speech where we can openly debate controversial issues. Failure to do so only leads to a rise in extremist views."It certainly looks like a huge own goal by the student union, and also by the student Islamic societies who were apparently behind the complaints. Rather than taking the opportunity to argue against the pernicious implications made about Muslims in Fitna, they have chosen to close down free debate. As another member of the Atheist Society, Nicola Jackson, points out, it risks making people "think they do have these [extremist] views and are just trying to limit the people that know."
This is an interesting story to come up, given the time I've put in to arguing against Wilders' views today. Just before the email from the Leeds students came through, I'd put my arguments against Fitna in a comment on the previous blog post. It seems appropriate to repeat them below, in a slightly tidied up version. Basically I think the film is a repulsive and misleading piece of propaganda, and it is essential that it (and by extension the political views of Geert Wilders) is challenged. But people can't do that if they haven't seen it.
So congratulations to Leeds Student Union for closing down what would no doubt have been a very challenging, but ultimately a very constructive and positive, debate.
Here's what I wrote about Fitna earlier:
"The implications the film makes are wrong. It is a typical piece of propaganda, which explores a complex issue entirely from one side, in the crudest manner possible. There is not a single point in the entire 17 minutes where an alternative viewpoint is offered. If this was a documentary on TV, it would be slated for this. Even a polemical journalist, if they are any good at what they do and have confidence in what they're saying, would acknowledge counter-arguments.
So Fitna is nothing but crude propaganda. And let's look at what it's saying. The most obvious criticism, and one that's been said in many, many places, is that it's a standard piece of cherrypicking. You could sit down and make the same thing with a Bible. Throughout the film, every Muslim we see is an extremist, from the terrorists, through the preachers, to the young girl who says she hates Jews. Not one bit of the film recognises that not all Muslims think like that. The implication of the film is that all Muslims are extremists, or potential extremists, or at the very least acquiescent in extremism. This is false.
And the big implication of Fitna is that Muslims are taking over the Netherlands and Europe. There is a scene headed "The Netherlands in the Future", which implies that one day in the future, Holland will see Saudi-style executions, stonings etc. To support this view, Wilders uses graphs of demographic statistics, and implies that the Muslim population in Holland and Europe is growing exponentially. The future bar for Europe grows until it is off the screen, implying that the Muslim population will continue to grow until it is in the majority. (Wilders' political statements also imply this). In this, Wilders is certainly wrong. Demographic projections suggest the Muslim population of Europe will be at around 10-15 per cent by 2050. It is common for those who talk of Eurabia to misrepresent demographic data."