- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

The Netherlands has launched a pre-emptive diplomatic campaign in hopes of limiting the fallout from an anti-Muslim film soon to be released by a right-wing Dutch politician who has said he wants to expose “the intolerant and fascist nature of the Koran.”

The campaign, including official statements denouncing the film and contacts by Dutch diplomats and religious leaders with their counterparts throughout the Islamic world, is intended to prevent a replay of the violent reaction that followed the 2005 publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper satirizing the prophet Muhammad.

“Under our constitution we cannot prohibit this film before it is aired, but we are trying in every way we can to make it clear that this does not reflect the policy of the government,” said Floris van Hovell, press counselor for the Dutch Embassy in Washington.

Populist Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party has nine seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, has vowed to release his 15-minute film “Fitna” the Arabic word for “discord” on the Internet by the end of the month, after Dutch television stations and movie theaters refused to air it.

Despite pleas from Dutch security officials, Mr. Wilders has refused to preview his film, which reportedly shows verses from the Muslim holy book alongside scenes of beheadings and stonings.

Mr. Wilders is under a round-the-clock police guard and the Netherlands earlier this month raised the national risk level to “substantial” ahead of the film’s release. Muslims make up an estimated 5.8 percent of the country’s population, the second highest percentage in Europe after France.

The publication of the Danish cartoons in papers across Europe led to riots and attacks on Western embassies in the Middle East, boycotts of Danish goods, and more than 100 deaths. The Danish government defended the publication as a matter of freedom of speech, but was criticized for failing to meet with Islamic ambassadors and representatives as the controversy swelled.

The cartoons were back in the news this week as a new audiotape from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden threatened a “severe” response in Europe after one of the cartoons was reprinted in some Danish newspapers. Dutch relations with its large Muslim minority have also been problematic. A Moroccan immigrant killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street in November 2004 over a film Mr. van Gogh had produced critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende in a statement last month condemned the threats made against Mr. Wilders, but added the government “fundamentally disagrees” with the arguments in the film. “Freedom does not absolve anyone from responsibility,” Mr. Balkenende said. “Already we are having to take account of serious threats to Dutch people and Dutch interests in a number of countries.” The Dutch Foreign Ministry earlier this month invited ambassadors from the states of the Organization of Islamic Countries to a briefing in advance of the release of the film. A delegation of Dutch Catholic, Protestant and Muslim religious leaders this week announced plans to travel to Muslim countries in a bid to soften the impact of the film. The film has even caused unease in Afghanistan, where Dutch soldiers are part of the NATO force fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda. “It’s a problem of extremists. They want to use this to their advantage where it’s rational or not,” U.S. Gen. John Craddock, NATO’s supreme commander for operations, said this week in Kabul. Mr. Wilders, for his part shows no sign of backing down, even as Islamist Web sites have called for his beheading. The Dutch government “is falling onto its knees before Islam and capitulating,” he told the German magazine Der Spiegel. Mr. Balkenende is “an anxious man who has chosen the side of the Taliban,” he said. This article is based in part on wire service reports

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