Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders gives a speech during a rally of the anti-immigration movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) in Dresden, Germany, on April 13, 2015. (Reuters Photo/Fabrizio Bensch)

Commentary: Dutch-Indonesian Relations Should Not Be Hurt by Wilders’ Cartoon Broadcast

JUNE 14, 2015

Jakarta. On June 20 and 24 and on July 3, the Netherlands’ outspoken parliamentarian Geert Wilders will broadcast cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad on Dutch television, using air time that could actually be used to broadcast better content for improving the country’s relations with the Islamic world.

Anticipating a possible backlash, the Dutch Foreign Ministry has reportedly sent out a guideline of response to its diplomatic missions overseas, including presumably in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population.

That response revolves around the government’s position that Wilders is not echoing the Netherlands’ official stance on the prophet, who is highly esteemed by more than 1.2 billion Muslims across the globe.

Dutch sources revealed this week that their ambassadors in 140 diplomatic missions around the globe had been instructed to speak the same language, that “the broadcasting of the cartoons are not the government’s idea, but that of a parliamentarian making use of his freedom of speech.”

The Dutch government hopes that with that phrase, its diplomats will be able to contain violent protests resulting from Wilders’ satirical broadcast — the cartoons that were created for a drawing competition in Texas in May, where Wilders was a guest speaker. The same event was the target of an attempted attack by two gunmen who were gunned down by police.

But a recent report in the NL Times newspaper has led many observers to believe that inside the Netherlands, awareness of the implications of Wilders’ moves against Islam’s greatest prophet is at its nadir.

“There is absolutely no question of panic or a crisis atmosphere about Wilders and his cartoons,” a diplomatic source told the newspaper. “In this age of Twitter and Facebook it is simply convenient if the government speaks with one voice; the ambassador to Morocco says the same as for example the one in Oman.”

The newspaper also suggested that Wilders’ plan has not caused the expected uproar, because based on an assessment by Elforkani Yassin, a spokesperson for the Dutch Liaison Committee for Muslims and Government, repeated insults against Islam would become a non-issue due to their frequent recurrence.

“Through the years,” he said, “Muslims have become accustomed to Wilders’ provocations.”

Such an assessment could be misleading, because this has to do with the faith and conviction of more than a billion people who want their prophet respected in the way they do him, and nothing less than that.

Countries like Indonesia, where the majority of the population is Muslim, though moderate, cannot be persuaded to accept the theory that the more their prophet is insulted, the more they will become accustomed to it and will not respond violently because they are tired of taking to the streets so often.

We are now trapped between the need to preserve freedom of speech in the name of democracy and human rights, and the need to preserve peace and solidarity among believers of different religions, especially in heterogeneous countries such as Indonesia.

Not only would Muslims be annoyed by Wilders’ broadcast, even Christians and Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists, too would question his actual motives. What is he actually trying to achieve through such a satirical and offensive campaign? He needs to explain what sort of benefit would come out of it.

History teaches us that such actions would bring no benefits to the Netherlands as a country, the Dutch as a highly civilized people, and would not be conducive to the Dutch government’s interactions with the Muslim world.

Wilders’ move could best be seen as a political experiment against religious sensitivity whose end-result would not somehow lead to better Dutch relations with Indonesia and the rest of the Muslim world.

The opposite is true. The more the Prophet Muhammad is insulted, the more the believers would respond violently. The theory that Muslims would be accustomed to repeated insults against their prophet is a dangerous simplification of the issue.

Wilders can actually play a better role in the Dutch parliament, for instance by advocating for human rights and good governance in the way that Jan Pronk used to do to win sympathy and admiration from human rights activists and justice seekers in Indonesia.

Perhaps what Wilders has forgotten or taken lightly is the long-standing Dutch-Indonesian relationship that must be preserved and not destroyed through actions that raise his popularity at home but ruin the painstaking efforts by Dutch diplomatic missions overseas to secure relations with friendly countries, especially Indonesia whose ties with Holland make up the bulk of the two countries’ history. Or Maybe Wilders doesn’t actually know of Indonesia.

Dutch-Indonesian relations must not be ruined by the aimless experiment of a politician hiding behind freedom of expression. For if Muslims around the world should feel terribly offended, most of them would be Indonesians who actually respect the Netherlands so highly for its good governance, best practices in business management, science and technology advancement, and strong advocacy of human rights and environmental issues.

This time, however, we should reverse the course. In the name of human rights, for which the Netherlands stands out as a world champion, the rights of the Prophet Muhammad to not be insulted must be protected by its government and fussy politicians as well.

But Muslims have the right not only to feel offended over the anti-Muhammad campaign, but also the right to not feel offended by it. Do the Dutch government and parliament have a reliable remedy to balance these two opposing poles?

Can exercising freedom of expression not be conducted in a way that won’t hurt the freedom of others to uphold their religious values and symbols? Or has Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations for some strange reason found a dangerous trigger in the Netherlands?

In the name of upholding democracy, Wilders’ right to freedom of expression must be protected, and even more must Islam’s prophet’s right to not be insulted publicly. So where to draw a healthy balance?

One good way to define a healthy balance is to apply peace and solidarity parameters, namely solidarity for peaceful coexistence involving people of different faiths across the globe that is now badly spoiled by dirty politics and big power calculations.

Wilders’ anti-Muhammad stance may receive a less brutal reaction if it were revealed to an academic community as part of a scientific historical thesis, but not to the general populace, especially when a majority of the audience being addressed comprises people of low educational background.

Even then I would rather recommend that Wilders find a more useful topic to be presented to the global audience instead of following the lead of near-sighted freedom experimenters whose actions will bring more pain than gain.

Surely the Dutch government cannot stop Wilders. But it can raise his opposition across the Netherlands whose passion is not to pour fuel on the flames of anti-Western sentiment, but to extinguish them through promotion of solidarity, friendship and beneficial cooperation to many nations’ advantage.

In this globally connected world, governments cannot effectively curtail negative content on mass media, especially online media, but they can launch positive solidarity-oriented campaigns to bring people from different backgrounds together — even as their politicians are going in the opposite direction in their selfish pursuit of election-related popularity.

Pitan Daslani is a former correspondent for Radio Netherlands and currently director of Managing the Nation Institute in Jakarta. He can be reached at pitandaslani@gmail.com.