On 12 February 2009 the Dutch 'Freedom Party' MP Geert Wilders was denied entry to the UK, turned back when he arrived at Heathrow Airport. He had been invited by Lord Pearson of Rannoch (a UK Independence Party peer) to join a group of British peers and MP's at a showing of his film 'Fitna' at the House of Lords. Two days earlier Wilders had received a letter, from the British ambassador to the Netherlands, telling him that he was not welcome in the UK. He decided to confront this ban on his entry through a well publicised arrival at Heathrow.
Should he have been denied entry? The debate is already intense, developing more heat than light, but the key issue to consider is surely that the issue, written about by a host of commentators as if it is a simple matter is actually far from simple. The argument for freedom of speech must start with Voltaire "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.". The Dutch government said it "regretted" the decision to bar Mr Wilders from the UK, saying it believed all its MPs "should be able to travel freely in the European Union". It should be noted that his party won nine seats in the Dutch House of Representatives in 2006. as the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad argued.“The British ban appears to trample on fundamental rights enshrined by the European Union and the Council of Europe but it also harms the concept that Europe is one open space,” it said in an editorial yesterday.
Meanwhile, Melanie Phillips argues strongly in the Daily Mail that there is apparent hypocrisy here since the UK government has not stopped anti-Israel, and often antisemitic, demonstrators peddling the most virulent hate messages in the UK whilst Wilders does not advocate violence, he merely pursues his constitutional right of freedom of speech to argue that Islamist terrorists derive justification for their ideas from some pretty unpleasant ideas in the Koran and he lays blame there at the book underpinning Islam itself.
The arguments against banning include the allegation that it is a craven response to threats from a Muslim minority and that we must stand up for free speech, see Philip Johnston in the Telegraph. It should be noted that Wilders is under threat of prosecution in the Netherlands for incitement to religious hatred and discrimination. Michael Portillo, the Conservative ex-cabinet minister, adds the point in The Times that banning Wilders has afforded a self-publicist enormous worldwide publicity for his views.
On the other hand...we have decided, as a society, that race hatred is a danger to our society itself and, therefore, that freedom of speech should be limited to prevent such expressions that could lead to serious public disorder and conflict. More recently, such limitations on freedom of speech have been extended to cover religious sensibilities. That extension was hotly debated and critics asked whether is would limit publication of a book such as Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Jews as well as Muslims have benefited from this extra sensitivity as Louis Farrakhan, accused of espousing antisemitic views, and Muslim cleric Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who describes suicide bombers as martyrs and homosexuality as a disease, have been excluded from the country. Do Wilders' views cross the line of acceptable debate; he wrote a 2007 article for Volkskrant, a Dutch paper, read it and judge for yourself. Critics allege that his film 'Fitna' takes verses out of context, omitting parts of verses and other verses before and after quoted text in order to create a misleading impression. Curiously, a video on UTube that makes this point is one of three videos made by the same team, the others using similar editing techniques to attack Israel. This illustrates that we must try to disentangle arguments from hypocrisy - Wilders, who now presents himself as an icon of freedom of speech has also advocated banning the Koran!
The letter given to Wilders, explaining his exclusion from the UK, read The order issued by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, read: "The Secretary of State is of the view that your presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society. 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."
But, I worry that Geert Wilders is an elected parliamentarian of an EU country. His views may be unpleasantly expressed but they are non-violent. Are we not allowed to criticise religions or communities now and is it only selected religions and communities that are beyond satire or criticism? I am reminded of the appalling precedent of the UK government's failure 2004 to prevent Sikh thugs from violent demonstrations and threats that forced the closure of the play Behzti - written by a Sikh - and that depicts rape and murder in a Sikh temple. Are Wilders views sufficiently aggressive or extreme to justify curtailing his right to free speech? He was not due to address a public meeting but a private meeting of peers of the realm and British MP's - was this really a threat to the UK?