When the Danish cartoon row began around the end of 2005, it took several months before the Danish government embarked on a counter propaganda offensive. It was not until February 2006 that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared on Al Arabiya in order to explain the position of his government to a worldwide Arab-speaking audience.
Although it was a good thing that he did this in the end (and initially no one, except for the Arab regimes that instigated the rows, could have foreseen that it would become such a big thing), I was rather critical at the time because Fogh Rasmussen did not take the opportunity to explain what free speech was really about:
What Fogh should have done instead of saying that free speech is important, was explain why it is important. Instead of appearing as a weak leader not worthy of much respect, by saying that as a Danish PM he is used to being criticised and that he accepts that, he would have come across as a good leader by explaining that the constant criticism actually helps him to do a better job. He could have said that because people in Denmark have been allowed to say what they think about their leaders for a long time, and can even get rid of them if the leaders don’t listen, Denmark is such a wealthy country with so little inequality and suffering. The hint would not have been missed on a region still predominantly ruled by dictators.
Today, the Netherlands is holding its breath for a similar row to erupt, this time about a Quran-critical film that has been made by a Dutch MP and which should come out before the end of this month. Over at A Fistful of Euros, Guy described how the issue is being hyped in Dutch media before the film is even published. Hype or not however, the Danish case shows how easy it is to turn the positive reputation of a country into one of evil anti-muslim crusaders (that is, if you are an Arab regime with a motive and complete control over what appears in your own media). So it is only right that, in an attempt to avoid the Danish mistakes, the Dutch government has been working for months through its embassies in the muslim world to at least try to get its own message across to government and media in the predominant muslim parts of the world.
As part of the pre-emptive strike, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the world service of the Dutch public radio, has now produced its own documentary (and a website ‘about Fitna, the movie’) in which it tries to explain the Dutch position on the MP’s film and its relation to free speech:
Has it succeeded better than Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the Al Arabiya interview? Well, yes, a little. What is good in the RNW film, is that it underlines that even the Dutch government is bound to obey the law, just like any ordinary citizen. It is not government, but the majority of the population through its representatives which makes the law. This is an important point to make. What the film also seems to be doing better than the Danish PM, is to make clear the importance of free speech for an open public debate. Even though a large majority of the population does not agree with the MP’s film, they still accept it is published because they realise that if they would ban opinions like these, next time it is one of their own opinions that is banned from being published. The giving and taking of free speech becomes a little clearer, and even more so because of most of the people explaining this in the documentary are Dutch muslims.
If the RNW film turns out to be convincing enough for a critical audience remains to be seen. What I am still missing, for instance, is a clear(-er) explanation of the connection between free speech, the state of law and democracy on the one hand, and having a government that is not corrupt, does not torture its citizens and governs effectively on the other. But it is an attempt, and anyway, if people turn to the streets over this film in Saudi Arabia, Syria or Egypt, we know that this is because their governments wanted them to, not because they have watched some film on the internet.
** update 27 March 2008: ** The film was published today. What an anticlimax! I mean, it is still the modern equivalent of Der ewige Jude, but not a lot of Dutch flags are going to be burnt over this. And it is badly made at that…
** update 28 March 2008: ** More on A Fistful of Euros.