If there is one major news outlet that would be expected to leap to the defense of free speech when that vital linchpin of liberty is under attack, one would expect that Fox News would be the one organization to do so. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the Obama administration tried to cut Fox out of access to the White House. To their credit, Fox’s competitors leapt to defend – not Fox, whom the rest of the mainstream networks despise – but free speech. That episode makes the way that all the networks, and Fox in particular, are ignoring the Geert Wilders trial so troubling and, in the case of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., rather mystifying, at least until one scratches the surface a bit.
Nobody expects CNN, ABC, NBC, etc. to cover the Wilders trial because those networks have established beyond any reasonable doubt that they are not going to cover issues related to Islam if the story in question doesn’t fit neatly within their “Islam isn’t the problem, it’s just a few explosive bad apples” narrative. Journalists who bend over backward to disconnect Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan from his jihadist inspirations aren’t likely to care about a political leader living across the pond who is obviously nothing more than a fringe, right-wing Islamophobe. But Fox? We’ve come to expect more from Fox. Perhaps it’s time to start expecting less, at least when issues involving Islam are involved.
What’s ironic about Fox ignoring the Wilders’ story is that the most important part of the attack on this Dutch politician doesn’t involve Islam at all, not really. If Fox editors and pundits honestly believe that Wilders is a fringe politician, spouting paranoid nonsense, fine. They’re wrong, but their opinion of Wilders and his ideas are irrelevant. What’s at stake here is a principle that is vital to western civilization: the basic right of free peoples to formulate and express their ideas, even when one finds those ideas abhorrent.
In addition to ignoring the fact that free speech is on trial in the Netherlands, some Fox commentators have recently attacked Wilders and his ideas, the implication being that even if a viewer is astute enough to realize that this Dutch politician is on trial for what he has said, Wilders is merely a nut job who’s not worth worrying about anyway. On March 9 Glenn Beck characterized Wilders as a “far right” politician, then when on to ominously observe that “the left – in Europe – is communism; the right is fascism – in Europe.” A first grader could connect those particular dots, as Beck intended. This is the same Glenn Beck who, a year ago, welcomed Wilders on his show and was downright sympathetic to the attacks on Wilders’ right to free speech that the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party had endured. Wilders experience, Beck declared, was a warning to America: “If you want to see what our future looks like, all you need to is look to Europe.”
Beck has apparently forgotten what he said, or has decided that free speech isn’t really that important a principle after all. Ironically, Wilders is hardly “far right” in his political views. Rather, his politics defy any sort of easy categorization. What Wilders understands is that an Islamic state has no use for the kind of healthy debate that makes democracy work. When Sharia Law is implemented, it’s the Quran’s way or the highway. Wilders’ political goal is to put measures in place that will ensure that the Netherlands remains a free, democratic nation. Wilders’ legal fight is about the freedom to work toward that goal.
Wilders criticizes Islam, not Muslims, because he believes that Islam is ultimately employed as a totalitarian system of governance, whatever it’s attributes or flaws as a religion. Otherwise sensible conservatives, like Charles Krauthammer, dismissed Wilders’ concerns out of hand:
“What he (Wilders) says is extreme, radical, and wrong. He basically is arguing that Islam is the same as Islamism. Islamism is an ideology of a small minority which holds that the essence of Islam is jihad, conquest, forcing people into accepting a certain very narrow interpretation [of Islam]. The untruth of that is obvious. If you look at the United States, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the U.S. are not Islamists. So, it's simply incorrect. Now, in Europe, there is probably a slightly larger minority but, nonetheless, the overwhelming majority are not.”
But what Wilders is saying and what pundits like Krauthammer think Wilders is saying are two different things. Of course most Muslims living in the United States are not Islamists. Of course the majority of the Muslims living in Europe are not Islamists. It’s safe to wager that the majority of Muslims living in Iran are not Islamists either. That’s not the point. Wilders, and any rational thinker, can’t help but observe that Muslim nations are overwhelmingly ruled by governments that are, in effect if not in name, theocracies. Sometimes those theocracies are dangerous, hostile tyrannies, as in the case of Iran, and sometimes they are indifferent, if occasionally useful, friends of the west like Saudi Arabia. At either end of the spectrum, no Muslim-ruled nation respects western traditions and values like freedom of speech, the equality of peoples and the right of dissent. Wilders hasn’t been trying to demonize individual Muslims, he’s been trying to keep the Netherlands from turning into an Islamic state. One may disagree with his methods, but to say that he doesn’t have the right to employ those methods because the theocratic system he opposes is so violently hyper-sensitive is patently ridiculous and downright cowardly.
So, why is Fox following its brethren in the media by ignoring the Wilders trial, a story that is full of so many themes that might otherwise attract Fox’s attention? Could it have anything to with Saudi Arabian prince Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's stake in News Corp.? Might Murdoch’s increasingly cozy relationship with Arabic media giant Rotana Group have something to do with it? Murdoch’s maverick news organization appears to playing a subtle, yet dangerous game.
Unlike its fellow networks, Fox is ready and willing to denounce radical jihadists who threaten not only the west, but who – if left unchecked – will upset delicate power structures in Muslim theocracies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that lean toward the west. But, for Fox, calling out the religious system of governance that empowers and enriches the princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE seems to be out of bounds. Free speech, it would appear, has it limits – even at Fox News.