Sunday, June 28, 2009

Watching Geert Wilder's Fitna

When Joan and I spent a long afternoon wandering around the corridors and display halls of the National Gallery in London last February, we really only scratched the surface in terms of what there is to see there. But even in the context of such a collection, Paul Delaroche's painting called "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" is, to say the least, arresting. The story of Lady Jane, who ruled England for nine days in 1553 and was eventually sentenced to death by Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, is one of the most famous episodes in English history, after all, and the picture itself, depicting the precise moment her chaplain guided her blindfolded head almost tenderly to the chopping block, is one of the masterpieces of nineteenth century French painting. Delaroche was a magnificent artist who created any number of true masterpieces. But it is the horror of the moment that overwhelms the viewer of this particular picture, not the artist's talent. Lady Jane was sixteen years old at the time of her death. In our world, she would have been in tenth grade.

The whole topic of beheading has always interested me, although in that peculiar way that certain concepts manage simultaneously to fascinate and repel. My fourth novel, Heads You Lose, is about a beheading (and includes retellings of more or less every biblical tale of decapitation). But I hadn't ever actually seen one...until last night, when I watched the much-discussed, just recently released fifteen-minute movie, Fitna, by the Dutch filmmaker, Geert Wilders. The movie starts off with a warning that some of the images included will be very upsetting to watch. That's putting it mildly.

The basic concept is that the filmmaker has interspersed verses from the Quran (which are chanted aloud in Arabic and displayed on the screen in English or Dutch, depending which version of the film you're watching) with scenes calculated to shock. Some of the footage is familiar--the plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers, for example, or pictures from the Madrid train bombings or the London bus and train attacks of 2005--but most of it will be new to most viewers and, just as intended, the effect is truly shocking: a little girl of three and a half talking about how she knows that Jews are apes and pigs because "Allah says so in the Quran," a Muslim preacher openly calling for Jews to be "butchered and killed", the murderer of a different Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, saying proudly that he would kill him again if it were only possible, and, yes, the actual beheading of Eugene Armstrong, an American executed by Muslim militants in Iraq in 2004. (To be precise, the footage only depicts Armstrong being shoved to the floor. The next image is of his murderers lifting aloft his severed head. The actual beheading is not shown.) I have not given the specific web address at which you can view the film, for fear that this e-letter might accidentally end up in the mailboxes of some of the children in our congregation. Adults interested in seeing it will find it simply enough by searching for it in the regular way.

The response of the world has been entirely predictable. The Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan denounced the film, as did the governments of almost every Muslim state. No surprise there, but equally vehement in their dislike for the movie were many others as well, Australia's foreign minister, the prime minister of the Netherlands, and the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, among them. Dutch Jews (who clearly have a lot more on the line here than the rest of us) also denounced the movie. (You can read all about it at .) I am unaware of any formal American response to the release of the movie.

As a rabbi, I viewed this film with a strange mix of emotions. Pride of place, of course, goes to horror, followed by outrage, followed by indignation. It's one thing, after all, to know that there are anti-Semites out there who hate us, and another actually to eavesdrop on preachers exhorting the faithful to murder Jewish people. But I can also identify a different set of emotions just beneath the surface, and it is those I wish to write about as well. The quotes from the Quran are, assuming they are accurately translated (and I haven't seen any reviews or comments suggesting that they are not), shocking. But I would be chagrinned to hear certain passages from the Bible quoted out of context as well. (The passage in Parashat Mattot advocating the utter destruction of the Midianites, including their children, comes to mind easily.) But the reason I would hate to hear that passage cited out of context, or any number of other ones like it, is precisely because we have moved on, because we have always understood that the challenge inherent in living authentically as Jews is not slavishly to adopt every stance or attitude we find expressed in our sacred books, but to use Scripture as loom across which to weave lives imbued with the highest ethical and moral values...not as our ancestors understood them, but precisely as we ourselves have come to understand them. I would be outraged if someone made a film about Jews citing passages from Scripture endorsing genocide. We have opted for living in peace with our neighbors for millennia! Nor have we owned slaves or practiced bigamy for almost as long. So what this film awakens in me is not outrage that there are negative, hostile passages in an ancient book, but a deeper set of questions to be asked. Who gets to define a religion? Is it possible that Islam has simply not developed over the centuries to embrace that same concept--that fidelity to God can never be achieved by squelching the moral conscience, by submitting mindlessly to laws that run counter to what we know in our hearts is wrong--and the kind of liberal worldview that stems from such an approach to religion?

Or could it just be that I'm looking in the wrong places? Surely there must be reasonable, decent Muslims in the world, people who abhor violence, who don't think of Jews as apes "because Allah says so in the Quran", who wish to live in peace with us and with the rest of the world. But, if there are such people, then where are they exactly? That is the question that I feel roiling and churning within. Where are they, and why, if they exist, don't they insist on defining Islam in their own terms? I ask these questions not because I know the answers to them, but merely to show that they can be asked. And that the response to Fitna doesn't only have to be horror (although it's hard to imagine viewing it without being utterly horrified), but also a more nuanced kind of response rooted at least as much in hope that reasonableness might yet prevail as it is in outrage that the world appears not yet to have seized just how dangerous the situation has clearly become. Do the Muslims of this world themselves understand the gravity of the situation they have created by letting violent fanatics define their faith in the eyes of the rest of the world? One thing I came away from Fitna knowing more certainly than ever: the real solution is going to have to come from within Islam. The question is how to foster that kind of moral development in a world in which extremists pass--in the internal Muslim media and in our own--for the real thing. (April 4, 2008)

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