Wednesday 11 February 2009

Blaming the messenger?

The decision to ban Dutch MP and film-maker Geert Wilders from visiting Britain is another example of the government's 'don't frighten the horses' approach to social cohesion, in which fear of angry fundamentalist mobs trumps human rights and freedom of expression. 

I hold no brief for Wilders and suspect that I would disagree with most of the policies of the right-wing Dutch Freedom Party that he leads. However, he's an elected politician in a neighbouring European democracy and has never been convicted of any criminal offence. The justification for his ban appears to be that he is a vocal critic of Islam and has articulated many of his objections to the religion in his film, Fitna, which overlays images of Islamist atrocities with quotations from the Koran.

You may dislike the film, and you may disagree strongly with Wilders' view of Islam, but that's no reason to censor him. As he said when interviewed on BBC Radio today, if you disagree with what I say, then let's have a debate. The government has fallen back on the argument that it is acting to stop 'those who want to spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities from coming to our country'. Of course it has the right to do so, and perhaps should do so more often: one wonders, for example, why a known spokesperson for Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by the EU, is permitted to speak freely at events in Britain. 

I heard a Muslim peer who has campaigned against Wilders' visit speaking on the radio at lunchtime. Cataloguing the many angry letters and emails that he has received about the planned visit, he gave a clue as to what really lies behind the government ban. It's clear that the 'extremism, hatred and violence' that they imagine would be stirred up by Wilders' arrival on these shores would come not from Wilders or his supporters - but from the religious fundamentalists who oppose him. And it's ironic that Wilders' film is actually seeking to address the causes of extremist violence - even if you disagree with its analysis. There are echoes here of the Panorama 'Undercover Mosque' affair, when it was the programme-makers who publicised religious extremism, rather than the extremists themselves, who were targeted by the authorities and accused of undermining community cohesion.

The government should overturn the ban, let Wilders come, and encourage an open debate about the relationship between religion and terrorism. If his arguments are weak, then his opponents have nothing to fear. We shouldn't allow the threats of extremists to determine who gets to express their views in a free society. Criticising religion, even in a manner designed to shock, is not (yet) an offence.

More on the Wilders affair from David T and Peter Tatchell, both of whom have plenty of suggestions as to the real hate-mongers that Jacqui Smith should think about banning.

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