There is a foreign element threatening America. He believes the Qur’an promotes violence. He creates videos of Muslims committing terrorist acts and hopes mainstream media plays them. He is committed to the clash of civilizations — Islam vs. the West. Britain, our primary ally, denied him entry, claiming he was a threat to public order. Now he wants to come here.
This foreign element does not speak Arabic. He does not pray five times a day. He does not have a beard. He is not even a Muslim. He is Geert Wilders, a Member of Parliament from a right-wing party in the Netherlands. Why he’s so interested in amplifying Osama bin Laden’s message that Islam promotes violence and division I don’t know.
And why he’s being invited to screen his offensive film Fitna in the ornate LBJ room in the U.S. Capitol confuses me too. My friend Keith Ellison, an African-American Congressman from Minnesota and a Muslim, compared it to screening the horribly racist film The Birth of the Nation in the White House.
A lot of people are mad about this. But I don’t think this is the time to get mad. I think this is the time to think strategy, and to remember core American values.
1) If this becomes a conversation about free speech, go ahead and hand Geert Wilders the trophy because he wins. The truth is lots of things qualify under free speech. Dirty jokes. Ugly lies. Stupid rumors. Probably Fitna does too. Let’s not get into that cat fight. The issue isn’t whether it’s legal to screen Fitna in the LBJ room, but whether it’s American to do so. Shouldn’t the best of America be on display in the Senate? Shouldn’t Capitol Hill be amplifying our tradition of pluralism rather than returning to the dark days of racism?
2) If our best idea is to protest Wilders we give him the images he wants — the heroic free speech crusader surrounded by a group of angry looking (preferably bearded) people shouting him down.
3) We shouldn’t try to get Fitna banned. And we shouldn’t try to get Wilders deported. We should simply point out that Wilders highlights a choice for America: Should we engage one-fifth of the world’s population by punching them in the mouth or by reaching our hand out in friendship? Which approach represents the American way?
As God and America would have it, the American Way happens to be on display the same day that Wilders is screening his film. It’s a made-for-TV contrast.
Thursday afternoon, Senator John Kerry will be hosting a hearing on how the US. can best engage Muslim communities around the world. Kerry is concerned about the dismal image of the U.S. among a large swath of humanity, and is convinced that we can improve this by better communicating American values.
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright will be testifying, as will Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, and me. My guess is that all of us will say the first step to improving America’s image and foreign relations is simply showing respect towards our fellow human beings, including Muslims. Quite universal, really. Africans want respect. Europeans want respect. Americans want respect. Muslims want respect. Pretty basic.
President Obama understands the American virtue of showing respect to others. In his Inaugural Address he told the Muslim world “we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” His first interview was with Al Arabiya, where he stated “My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect.”
I’m confident that most Americans, seeing the stark choice between Kerry’s hearing and Wilders’ film, will choose the best of our nation instead of the worst of someone else’s country.
Come to think of it, I’m glad Geert Wilders is on Capitol Hill. I hope he drops by our session. Maybe he’ll learn something about American values too.