I had heard about the “controversial” film Fitna in the days prior to this posting, but I had not found reason to watch it until I noticed that screening it would soon become necessary for discussion in the context of my Amsterdam class. So I watched it just now.


I am speechless.

My only context for the film was twofold: an assumption that the film was about Islam, gleaned from its shared name with the term used for the Islamic civil wars, and the fact that it was “controversial,” a bit of news gathered from various blogs I read detailing its existence on Google Video. I had always assumed that this film would be “controversial” in the way that a political blog like Daily Kos is, or in the way that the great Martin Luther King was at some point “controversial” – that is, that they examine what is already a controversial subject (political news and racism, respectively), and draw certain insightful but not necessarily politically safe analyses and conclusions from them.

This is nothing like that.
This is more akin to terrorism.

The film is shocking. The use of footage from September the 11th in its opening is only the first in a long string of shocking imagery used in the film. The quote from the Qur’an in the beginning of the film isn’t an introduction, isn’t a hook, isn’t a piece of food for thought; it and its successive siblings are rather the focus of the film, it and its successive siblings are rather the foreground against which the film’s shocking images are set, it and its successive siblings are rather the disquieting fragments of text from an already fragmented text called out to be wielded in some unseemly fashion to illustrate some unseemly point which, try as I might, I fail to comprehend in the slightest.

The film is shocking. The film is beyond hyperbole, and this statement is far from it. Indeed, I find myself sitting here writing this post of my own volition, before knowing what the content of it is supposed to be simply because I feel compelled to write something about its grotesque nature at this very moment. There are, of course, other reactions.

There are also less reactionary and perhaps more rational and scholarly approaches to discussing the film – not on the merits of its content, which are beyond hope for any sort of academic study, but rather in terms of the social roots of its existence and of its topic. I could discuss the film’s religious roots, discussing the effects of perspective upon various views of the world, but this line of discussion has been done to death by minds greater than mind, and are not what I find immediately stimulating.

Rather, I would like to discuss the issue of the freedom of speech: what does it mean and where does it cease? Unfortunately, I have no answers to this question, and thus I am unable to provide a particularly proper discussion on this issue. In my opinion, there is no such thing as overstepping the bounds of the freedom of speech. Society is self-balancing, and if one does make a statement this controversial, the social backlash and implications thereof are likely to rectify any damage one may have done or attempted to do. However, I find it incredible that there was considerable issue raised with video sharing sites’ decisions on whether or not to allow the video to be shared. Put simply, the laws and rights of free speech cease once one intrudes upon private property. These companies have a right to look out for their employees’ security (which prompted the original distributor to remove the video for several days), but also to their own interests, and avoiding the center of controversy certainly falls in that category.

8 Responses to “Fitna.”

  1. 1 JB

    I think your move to focus on the issue of freedom of speech is acute. None of us is able to cast it juridically–and too we are of course engaging a Dutch film through an American lens–but one way to contextualize it is to hark back to the D. W. Griffith movie “Birth of a Nation,” which depicted a lynching, and was protested upon its release in 1915. There is a terrific lecture on this called “Do Movies Have Rights”; it was given by a Pulitzer prise winning writer and ahem friend Louis Menand:

    There is a lot more to say. (Where does art fall? Is “Fitna” art? What of “Submission”?) Your post is a very good beginning.

  2. 2 Isaac

    About your last point–yes, it makes sense from a commercial or even safety standpoint to remove the controversial video. But why is this the case? If freedom of speech really has no limits, then not only should people be able to say (post) whatever they want, but it should of course be safe for them to do so, both in terms of personal safety and “commercial safety.” In the first regard, removing the video is basically an admission that this safety is deficient. Therefore, the government (or what have you) isn’t doing its job. Obviously, the government can’t ensure the latter type of safety in a free market. Securing this is the responsibility of citizens. That is, if we want to protect the commercial viability of controversial expression, we need to seek it out and actively support it (monetarily, or however else). So I agree that it makes sense that would remove the video, but I also am not surprised that the decision was controversial.

  3. 3 clint

    Yes, but the government’s job is not to regulate for the sake of freedom of speech what happens inside a private forum, which much of the internet is. The government’s job is to regulate public forums; for instance, the radio airwaves and cable infrastructure of the country is owned by the government for the public interest, and so TV and Radio are public forums. Therefore, the government has a say in how TV and Radio outlets must handle particular issues such as elections.

    More generally, however, the Bill of Rights and particularly the First Amendment is a limitation on what the government cannot do. The government cannot prevent a newspaper organization from publishing and distributing its material; the government cannot prevent religious organization from existing and preaching; and ironically, the government cannot prevent companies from regulating and censoring content on their own property.

    So we see that the problem here arises not from any particular deficiency in our laws or regulations or government, but instead in how radically and suddenly the Internet has changed the nature of the public forum and discourse, as well as how information is disseminated, or more accurately in today’s age, traded. Whereas traditionally the media’s output has been moderated inherently by media corporations’ desire to maintain their consumers and reduce alienation, the web introduces the concept of user-generated content, but that which is hosted, or provided, if you will, by other, larger corporations.

    This radical shift is what makes our perceival of the freedom of speech warped – all of a sudden, what we generally consider to be the public forum (youtube or google video, for instance) is not. It is instead a private forum.

    I do not believe that government regulation of private forums is a legitimate approach to solving this problem. I am not even sure entirely if there is, indeed, a problem.

  4. 4 Isaac

    I think there was a misunderstanding. I’m not recommending government regulation of online forums of any kind. Ultimately, it is–and should be–the company’s decision about whether or not to host a specific piece of information, or a video like Fitna. But what’s important is not whether a particular company will or will not choose to host such a video, but whether it’s hosted at all.

    If a controversial film like Fitna is not made available, it is effectively being censored. This censorship doesn’t necessarily originate from an individual or committee, but comes from the lack of safety from those who would try to enforce such censorship. As you say, the companies and forums in question are private; rather than being directly regulated by the government, they are guided by the laws of capitalism (excuse my perverse idealism), which, on the whole, ensure that, if something is safe and profitable, someone will do it.

    I have no doubt that Fitna gets plenty of traffic, so it is definitely profitable. The only reason, then, that a relevant company would decide not to host it is that it isn’t safe. If we were talking about the development of a new kind of chemical weapon, then I would say that it’s normal and not surprising that no one should want to undertake such a dangerous project. But in this case, we are talking about the safety of expressing an idea. This is where, I believe, it is the government’s (and, by extension, everyone’s) responsibility to ensure that lack of safety does not become a deterrent. This is a public issue.

    So to reiterate: You’re right, the government cannot prevent individuals or companies from silencing themselves. But it can and must prevent others from silencing them.

  5. 5 JB

    Capitalism isn’t about safety; it’s about profit.* Freedom of expression isn’t about profit; it’s about safety, at least in the sense that the right to express is guarded. My terseness here shouldn’t imply a dismissive response: far from it. There seem to me two distinct issues, even as they overlap in terms of how we are accessing the film.

    *(The marketplace is about competition, and in competitions there are losers–but I may be playing fast and loose with yr intended use of safety, Isaac..)

  6. 6 Isaac

    But capitalism is maintained and enforced by the same government that is supposed to maintain and enforce safety, no? Safety is relevant to capitalism AND freedom of expression where it enters into the analysis of the costs versus benefits of expressing a particular idea. Freedom of expression and capitalism are indeed two very different things, but I think we have been trying to at least make them compatible.

  7. 7 jb

    You’re right to say that both capitalism and freedom of speech exist in relation to governmentality; my point is that they’re mechanized by different “economies.” I’m still not grasping your point, perhaps: safety is not a primary consideration in capitalism: it emerges in the marketplace as a function of profit: recall the job that the Ed Norton character has in Fight Club: an insurance claim assessor working on behalf of a car manufacturer; Norton’s job is to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of accidents and figure out whether it’s worth–and I use the term advisedly–changing the way the car is assembled. Ironic, but it makes my point.

  8. 8 Isaac

    Right–in capitalism, safety is taken into consideration as it becomes a factor in profit. If the government influences safety, then, it also influences what is profitable. My point about this is that the government should indeed make it safer to express unpopular ideas, so that they become profitable (the cost/benefit ratio having decreased), and will thereby be expressed.

    Does that make sense in response to your point? Let me know if I’ve misunderstood what you’re saying.

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