Wilders cancels cartoon contest after uproar

 Edition 30 September 2018, Johannes Visser

He did it again. Eminent agitator Geert Wilders has made a big splash and upset lots of people, while generating headlines in the Netherlands and beyond, and then backed out. This time it was about his cartoon competition about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

On August 30th, after days of death threats and massive protests, the leader of the Freedom Party (PVV) canceled the cartoon contest that he had initiated earlier. In a statement Wilders wrote: “in order to avoid the risk of Islamic violence, I decided to not let the cartoon contest go ahead. Our people’s safety comes first.” The contest was to take place on November 10th in a tightly secured section of the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives). The winner of the contest would have taken home 10.000 dollars (8.500 euros), paid for by an anonymous donor. Wilders announced the cartoon competition in June. Though he said the competition was about freedom of expression, many in the country considered it a provocation, as the goal was to mock the Prophet Muhammad. In a poll by current affairs show EenVandaag among 21.000 Dutch people, 59 percent of respondents said Wilders went too far with his cartoon contest. Most people were of the opinion that he put others at risk and that the competition was meant primarily to incite hatred and call attention to himself. And that’s exactly what happened. As predicted, the competition caused quite the uproar in the Muslim regions of the world, especially in Pakistan. The strictly Islamic TLP, though not a large political party in that country, was able to mobilize up to 10.000 supporters in protest marches across the country. Its leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi said he wanted to lob an atomic bomb on the Netherlands. Not just Wilders, but the Netherlands too became a target of mass protest. Pakistan threatened to boycott Dutch products and there were calls to close the Dutch embassy in Islamabad. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan phoned his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte to ask for an explanation about the cartoon contest.

Freedom of speech vs. security concerns

Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok put out a statement saying he would veto the cartoon competition, citing freedom of speech as one of the Netherlands’ greatest values. But he also lambasted Wilders’ lack of taste and warned that the security of Dutch citizens in Muslim countries had become a concern, though he wouldn’t tell what Pakistan and Holland had been discussing on the highest diplomatic levels. Wilders himself received hundreds of death threats from around the world. A Pakistani clergyman issued a fatwa against the bleached-blond politician and Pakistani cricketer Khalid Latif put 20.000 euros on the ‘blasphemer’s head’. Then the upheaval started to spill over beyond that country’s borders. On August 28th, a Pakistani national was arrested at Den Haag Centraal train station, threatening in a video to kill Wilders. The man had been in Europe for a while, but had traveled to the Netherlands as soon as he heard about the competition. The video he made in The Hague was viewed by at least 200.000 people, with tens of thousands of Pakistanis posting statements of support. Another radicalized Muslim came to the Netherlands specifically in order to carry out an attack, stabbing two American tourists (who survived) at the train station of Amsterdam, because according him ‘the Netherlands keeps insulting Islam’.

As a result of heightened security risks, a Dutch trade mission to Pakistan was postponed. In neighboring Afghanistan, the Taliban called the cartoon competition ‘a hostile action by the Netherlands against all Muslims’. The Dutch troops currently on mission in Afghanistan were put on high alert for security reasons. Ultimately Geert Wilders himself decided to cancel the competition, stating as the reason not his own safety but that of others. The demonstrators in Pakistan claimed victory and the protests ended at once. The Pakistani minister for Information Fawad Chaudry spoke of “a victory of Pakistani sentiment”. Wilders says he’s proven once again that the nature of Islam is violent and intolerant. His extremist opponents on the other side of the globe have demonstrated that freedom of speech does not include the absolute freedom to insult. The tense and fragile relations between two nations far apart, with very different cultural values, have once again been put to the test.