wilders shore of free speech endangered

the australian, 16 february 2009

I despise Geert Wilders. The leader of the rightwing Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), Wilders has made a name for himself in recent years with his crude anti-Islamic invective. Last year, his film Fitna, a provocative diatribe about the Quran, created considerable waves both in Holland and internationally.   I loathe Wilder’s populist anti-immigration rhetoric. I despair of his tirades against Muslims. I find Fitna obnoxious.

But I also think that he has every right to be as crude, loathsome and obnoxious as we wants to be. He should be free to be as rude about me and my beliefs – indeed, about anybody’s beliefs - as I am about him and his beliefs. That, for me, is the essence of robust political debate in a plural society.

Unfortunately Jacqui Smith, the British Home Secretary disagrees. On Thursday she banned Wilders from entering Britain. Why? Because she thinks that he is so crude, loathsome and obnoxious that he might actually upset a few people.

A group of British peers had organized a screening of Fitna in the House of Lords on Thursday. Wilders was invited to speak there. But on Tuesday night, he received a letter from the British ambassador in the Hague informing him that ‘The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere, would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.’ Hence, the letter continued, ‘You are advised that should you travel to the UK… you will be refused admission.’

Even for these censorious times, the Wilders affair marks a new low. Every aspect of the argument in the letter to Wilders is misconceived. Wilders was banned because the Home Secretary feared he was a threat to ‘public security’. But Wilders had never threatened any violence or disorder. Nor indeed had his critics in Britain. The Home Secretary clearly believed that had he come to Britain his critics would have responded with violence. Perhaps they would have. But the responsibility for such violence would then have been with the perpetrators, not with Wilders. Wilders was penalised not for what he did but for what someone else may have done to him. That is neither logical nor just.

The Home Secretary suggested that Wilders’ presence in Britain would ‘threaten community harmony’.  But how can community harmony be maintained by preventing one strand of opinion from expressing itself? Wilder’s ideas have caused controversy because there is a real debate in Western societies about Islam and about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. However deplorable we might find Wilders’ arguments we cannot wish them away. They have to be engaged with, openly and robustly.

Suppressing debate leads not to a more harmonious society but to a more sectional one. It creates what the novelist Monica Ali has called a ‘marketplace of outrage’ in which everyone is encouraged to say ‘My feelings are more hurt than yours.’ In the marketplace of outrage, everyone pleads their own right to free speech but also demands the right to gag anyone else.

Three years ago, British Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie made some derogatory comments about homosexuals in a radio interview. Ludicrously those comments led to a police investigation under Britain’s hate speech laws. In response 22 Muslim leaders wrote to the Times newspaper demanding the right to be able to ‘freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying’. Those same leaders had denied such a right to newspapers publishing cartoons about Mohammed – and many now welcome the ban on Wilders. Many of those happy to see cartoons lampooning Mohammed draw the line at anything mocking the Holocaust.  Gay rights groups want Muslims to be prosecuted for homophobia but want the right to criticise Muslims as they see fit. ‘My speech should be free’, seems to be the argument,  ‘but yours is too costly’.

The Wilders affair itself illustrates this process. The Dutch foreign minister has criticised the British government for refusing entry to an elected MP. But in Holland Wilders is even now facing trial for promoting hate speech. Wilders presents himself as a free speech martyr. Yet he campaigns for a ban on the Qur’an on the grounds that it promotes hatred and violence.  The argument against free speech, in other words, very quickly degenerates into an argument in defence of particular sectional interests. The liberal fear of giving offence has simply made it easier for everyone to take offence.

Twenty years ago this week, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was the Rushdie affair that first raised the issue of free speech in a plural society – and set the tone for subsequent debates. Twenty years on, we still have not learnt the lesson of the Satanic Verses controversy that it is precisely because we live in a plural society that expression needs to be as free as possible.

Where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Community harmony is best served by acknowledging those clashes and dealing with them in the open, rather than by trying to censor them away.
We can build a plural society in which free speech provides the means of engagement and dialogue between different parts of society. Or we can create a sectional society in which restrictions on free speech help police the fragments. The choice is ours.