Egypt’s Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi threatened “severe” consequences if the Dutch government doesn’t ban Parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic film Fitna. It makes no difference to Tantawi and other perpetually outraged Islamists that the Netherlands is a sovereign country with its own laws. Ever since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death for writing the supposedly offensive Satanic Verses – and sent death squads after him and his publishers around the world – radical Islamists have seen it as their right and duty to enforce their own unilateral anti-blasphemy laws on the human race. (Meanwhile, liberal American Muslim Aziz Poonawalla hosts Fitna on his own Web site even though he, as should be expected, doesn’t like it.)
Fitna isn’t the only recent movie hard-line Islamists hope to squelch beyond their own borders. The other is Persepolis, an animated film based on Iranian author Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name about repression under both the Shah Reza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini. General Wafik Jizzini at Lebanon’s Ministry of the Interior banned it because, he said, Shia officials (read: Hezbollah) said it was offensive to Islam and – you guessed it – Iran. Islamic Republic officials and their proxies are true to form here, considering it was they who kicked off the international anti-blasphemy campaign in the first place.
“The heart of every culture-loving Lebanese breaks with every ban,” writes Abu Kais, a Lebanese Shia who lives now in Washington and writes the indispensable blog From Beirut to the Beltway. Beirut is a genuinely cosmopolitan and culturally rich city, more so than any other Arab capital. And Lebanon, true to its form, fought back. Tarek Mitri, Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, managed to overturn the ban and get Persepolis on the big screen after all.
It’s too bad Fitna and the reaction to it sucked all the media oxygen out of the room. I haven’t seen Geert Wilders’ short film, but he’s sounds like a reactionary who makes a poor poster boy for free expression (he wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands). He not only thinks radical Islamists shouldn’t be able to buy their own copy, but neither should moderate Muslims or people like you and me who might want to study it for our own reasons. The man has a death threat hanging over his head from nutjobs the world over, as do employees at the Internet company LiveLeak that hosts the film, yet an enormous amount of the public discussion revolves around whether or not his film is offensive. It is offensive to some people, including many reasonable people. But that’s beside the point.
The fight over Persepolis in Lebanon is more straightforward than the one over Fitna in the Netherlands. Geert Wilders and his politics are distractions, but Marjane Satrapi and her film are not. She isn’t accused of having her own censorship agenda with a different target package, nor does she appear to be an extremist of any variety. Persepolis has won a long list of prestigious awards. If the Iranian regime can have it even temporarily banned in another country, this is a serious problem. Don’t assume threats of violence weren’t behind it. Hezbollah is Iran’s private army in Lebanon. When the regime issues orders to Beirut, threats need not be leveled. They’re assumed.
The important question here isn’t whether Fitna or Persepolis is offensive. "Offensive" movies will always be with us–they’re a sign of human creativity, a spur to debate. I just hope the United Nations doesn’t get involved. At the same time international campaigns were launched to shut down these movies, the United Nations Human Rights Council – in true Orwellian fashion – passed a resolution against “the defamation of religion” and suggests governments pass laws to stop to it. If freedom of expression – which includes the right to blaspheme the Gods – isn’t a human right, then human rights do not exist. Lives are at risk here, as are good movies and bad. It ought to go without saying that the United Nations Human Rights Council ought to concern itself with reducing threats to human rights rather than join the extremists and make threatening noises of its own.