LONDON (Reuters) - Is Europe learning any lessons from a series of harsh collisions between free speech and the religious sensibilities of Muslims?
The next few weeks may provide an answer, as the Netherlands gears up for the release of a short film, expected to be fiercely critical of Islam, by right-wing politician Geert Wilders who has called the Koran a “fascist” book.
Past experience is not encouraging: in 2004 a young Dutch militant Islamist stabbed to death a director who had made a film attacking the treatment of women in Islam. Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad — one showing him with a bomb in his turban — provoked a wave of Muslim anger around the world which erupted in 2006 and is still simmering today.
The Dutch are taking no chances — last week they raised their terrorism alert level for fear of a militant Islamist attack in response to the Wilders film.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said on Friday he had warned European leaders of a possible backlash against European interests. “We will keep each other informed about the situation so that when the movie comes out we can all speak with one European voice,” Balkenende said.
Security analysts say the government has a key advantage this time around: it has known about the film for months and has used that time to reach out to the Muslim community at home, as well as conducting diplomacy abroad.
“The most important lesson that came out of Denmark was you have to have established channels of communication with the Muslim community in your country. It’s important (Muslims) are issuing calls for calm and making sure this doesn’t escalate,” said Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London.
Local imams and Muslim youth workers are among those the authorities have cultivated, said Edwin Bakker of the Clingendael Institute, a think-tank in the Netherlands.
“There’s a lot of prevention going on,” he said. “They already have people, movements, organizations representing Muslims to come out with statements saying: ‘Keep dignified, don’t give (Wilders) the chance to make a success out of it.’”
That is precisely the advice to Dutch Muslims of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss academic and one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim intellectuals.
Ramadan told Reuters he did not expect a new crisis on the scale of the Danish cartoons affair, but the risk was that the film could split society in a way that would suit the purposes of both Wilders and militant Islamists.
“For Wilders, this is exactly what he wants ... he wants polarization. ‘Islam is not compatible with the West and our values’ — this is what he’s saying. And (Osama) bin Laden, this is exactly what he wants,” Ramadan said. “My advice (to Muslims) is take an intellectual critical distance towards this. Say ‘we don’t like it’, but go ahead and just ignore it.”
Despite the tensions, there are some positive signs. The affair has helped fuel interest in Islam among the rest of the Dutch population, with more visits to mosques by non-Muslims and a higher quality of media debate, said Bob de Graaff of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
“One can never rule out the possibility that a small group or loner may commit an act of violence related to the film,” he said. “But I myself am rather confident such an act this time would no longer have the same long lasting effects” as past crises like the 2004 killing of film maker Theo van Gogh.
The Dutch government has used tactical means to reduce the fanfare surrounding the film, telling Wilders he will have to pay the security costs himself if he wants to promote it with a news conference. As no broadcaster has agreed to show it, it is expected to be released on the Internet on March 28.
Some analysts believe, however, the bigger challenge for the Dutch may be to manage fallout from abroad — protests have already begun in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the Danish cartoons case, protests spread rapidly around the world, with trade boycotts, attacks on Danish embassies and violent demonstrations in which at least 50 people were killed.
“It became extraordinarily difficult to contain the genie and there was no way they were able to control that ... So I think the Dutch are a bit over-optimistic that they have laid all the groundwork,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a security expert at the Swedish National Defence College.
The Wilders affair will not be the last to test European nations on potential clashes between free speech and Islam, Ranstorp said. “There are going to be more crisis events.”
Editing by Peter Millership