Anti-Islamic short prompts Dutch plan

Amsterdam, The Netherlands - Is Europe learning any lessons from 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 Theo van Gogh, 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 across the world that erupted in 2006 and is still simmering.

The Dutch are taking no chances: they recently raised their terrorism alert level for fear of a militant Islamist attack in response to the Wilders film.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende says he has 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," he says.

Security analysts say the Government has a key advantage this time: 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," says 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, says Edwin Bakker, of Dutch think tank Clingendael Institute.

"There's a lot of prevention going on," he says. "They already have people, movements, organisations 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 from Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss academic and one of Europe's most prominent Muslim intellectuals.

Ramadan says he does not expect a new crisis on the scale of the Danish cartoons affair, but the risk is that the film can split society in a way that will suit the purposes of both Wilders and militant Islamists.

"For Wilders, this is exactly what he wants ... he wants polarisation. '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 says. "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, says 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 says. "But I am rather confident such an act this time would no longer have the same long-lasting effects" as past crises, such as the killing of 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 begun in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the Danish cartoons case, protests spread rapidly across 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 overoptimistic that they have laid all the groundwork," says 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 says. "There are going to be more crisis events."