Britain was once renowned around the world for defending people’s right to speak out. Not any more:
Even Â Philip Johnston from theÂ libtarded Telegraph gets it, sort of:
The very people who in 1989 were demanding the murder of Salman Rushdie for writing a book are today leading the charge against Geert Wilders for making a (short) film. The fundamental difference is that 20 years ago, the government supported free speech; today, it has cravenly surrendered. It is simply not good enough to say that Wilders should not be heard because he might provoke a backlash from those who do not like him or his views. That is not upholding the law. That is appeasement. (Of course it its…)
The refusal to admit the oddball Dutch MP Geert Wilders to Britain yesterday marks a further retreat from this country’s traditions of free speech. It stands in stark contrast to what happened exactly 20 years ago tomorrow, when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet Mohammed in his bookÂ The Satanic Verses.
In retrospect, that was a turning point in the country’s history of free speech, an event that appeared to demonstrate indomitability, yet turned out to be a defeat. An unambiguous stand was taken on Rushdie’s behalf by the government of the day, which denounced the threat to his life and broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. Sir Geoffrey Howe, then foreign secretary, told the Commons: “This action is taken in plain defence of the right within the law of freedom of speech and the right within the law of freedom of protest.”
Despite mass book burnings, protests around the world, including in Bolton and Bradford, and threats of violence, the work continued to be published and sold. How could it be otherwise? This was Britain, after all, the citadel of free speech. We would not be brow beaten into denying the rights of one of our citizens, or anyone else for that matter, from having their say, however controversial or offensive their opinion might be.
Sadly, the past two decades have seen a pusillanimous flight into cowering capitulation. We seem to have forgotten what free speech entails, how hard it was fought for and how important it is to defend. It is the value with which this country is most associated throughout the world. It is why Britain has been home, over the centuries, to so many political dissidents who would have been persecuted elsewhere, and why those who live in autocracies that brook no criticism tune into the BBC World Service.
They see this as a place able to accommodate opinions that are obviously crazy, offensive or even seditious, a country where a view can be held and expressed, provided â€“ and this has always been true â€“ that it does not foment violence.
Geert Wilders is an anti-Islamist who regards the Koran as inherently inflammatory and believes he is justified in saying so. He has made a 17-minute film,Â FitnaÂ â€“ an Arabic word meaning test of faith â€“ setting out this thesis and was invited to show it at a private screening in the House of Lords. The film can be seen on the internet, so there is no question of stopping its dissemination. It contains some unpleasant images of bomb explosions, of captured hostages facing death and of chanting mobs interlaced with passages from the Koran.
Wilders claims that these verses from the holy book of Islam are being used today to incite modern Muslims to behave violently and anti-democratically. You may think he is wrong to say this; you may agree with him; you might, like the lords who invited him to Britain, think it is something worthy of discussion, given the obvious problems caused around the world by radical Islamism and the violence perpetrated in the name of the religion. It is hard, in a free country, to understand why it is a view that must be suppressed.
What, then, possessed the Home Office to ban Wilders â€“ an unprecedented action against a democratically-elected politician from a European state, who is entitled to free movement within the EU? By any measure, it was an extraordinary decision; yet it was not even raised in parliament, the supposed guardian of our freedoms, though some MPs have commented on the ban, largely to support it.
Were Wilders a terrorist preaching violence against particular groups, it could be understood on public order grounds. 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 filmÂ FitnaÂ and elsewhere would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.”
Yet what possible threat to public security is posed by a Dutch MP showing a film, in private, to a smattering of peers on a Thursday afternoon in February? Of itself, the film does not call for violence against Muslims; indeed, it suggests that Islam is a cause of violence, a view with which you are entitled to agree or feel strongly about, but not to prohibit.
The reason for the ban appears to have been the possibility of protests by some Muslim organisations against Wilders’s visit. In other words, his freedom to express a view and the liberty of peers to hear it in an institution supposedly devoted to free speech, were set aside in the face of intimidation â€“ the opposite of what happened in the Rushdie case, even if that author was forced into hiding.
What is particularly insidious is the application of double standards. One of those most opposed to Wilders’s visit is the Muslim peer Lord Ahmed, though he denies allegations that he warned parliamentary authorities that 10,000 demonstrators would take to the streets. Yet two years ago, Lord Ahmed invited Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian previously detained on suspicion of fundraising for groups linked to al-Qaeda, to Westminster to meet him. When he was criticised for doing so, he said it was his parliamentary duty to hear Rideh’s complaints. He does not appear to see any contradiction with the position he now adopts against his fellow peers.
Had a foreign parliamentarian who disliked Christians and considered the Bible to be inflammatory planned a visit to Britain, does anyone imagine he would have been prevented from doing so? No, and neither should he have been. This must work for everyone.
The arrest and possible prosecution of Rowan Laxton, a Foreign Office diplomat, for railing at the Israeli invasion of Gaza from his exercise bike in the gym, is the latest example of an equally sinister development â€“ the denunciation of opinions expressed in private, as with Carol Thatcher’s “golliwog” comments. Free speech is about understanding that some people hold a different view from you, whether you like it or not. When we start to alert the “authorities” to thought crimes we really are one step away from the dystopian world that Orwell invented as a warning, not a prophecy.
The Government that has treated our liberties in such a cavalier way is having none of this, of course. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said the film made by Wilders was “full of hate” and therefore fell foul of British laws, though he admitted that he had not seen it and therefore could not judge. But, in any case, is he right? Is it against the law?
People have always been free under the criminal law to speak their minds, provided they did not, in doing so, incite others to commit violence or infringe public order. Rabble-rousers trying to whip up the mob have never been the beneficiaries of this latitude: there is, in other words, a difference between license and liberty. However, it is necessary to demonstrate that the words complained of are likely to stir up hatred and public disorder, not merely to complain that they are unpleasant or objectionable to some. Imams have been allowed to continue preaching in mosques when it could be argued that they have overstepped this mark, as when they have called for the death of homosexuals or Jews.
Wilders is no advertisement for free speech. After all, he wants the Koran to be banned. But that is not the point. It is what this affair says about us, not him, that matters. Is Britain now adopting a position where people who support suicide bombers and jihad are able to make known their opinions without legal challenge, whereas those who oppose them cannot?
The very people who in 1989 were demanding the murder of Salman Rushdie for writing a book are today leading the charge against a Dutch MP for making a film. The fundamental difference is that 20 years ago, the government supported free speech; today, it has cravenly surrendered. It is simply not good enough to say that Wilders should not be heard because he might provoke a backlash from those who do not like him or his views. That is not upholding the law. That is appeasement.