I despise Geert Wilders. I loathe his populist anti-immigration rhetoric. I despair of his tirades against Muslims. I find his film Fitna obnoxious.
But I also think that he has every right to be as crude and as loathsome as he 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 is the essence of robust political debate in a plural society.
When he was banned from Britain last year, the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith claimed that his ‘statements about Muslims and their beliefs… would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.’
Wilders is a threat to public security only insofar as some of his critics may be provoked enough to respond with violence. But then they, not Wilders, should be held responsible. It is neither logical nor just to penalize Wilders not for his actions but for actions others may take against him.
What of the threat to ‘community harmony’? 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. That is why his party, the PVV, made gains in Dutch elections last week. However deplorable we might find Wilders’ arguments we cannot wish them away. They have to be engaged with, openly and robustly.
Underlying the argument for censoring people like Wilders is the belief that in a plural society, speech necessarily has to be less free. ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict’, the sociologist Tariq Modood suggests, ‘they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
No they don’t. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that expression needs to be as free as possible. In a society in which different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Such clashes are best dealt with openly rather than through censorship. A society in which no offence is given or taken is one that is culturally and politically dead. The right, even of bigots, to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ – and indeed to be offensive and abusive about them at times - is the bedrock of an open, diverse society.