Geert Wilders: Banning a bigot is a bad idea
Geert Wilders exploded into boorish insults on being told of the decision at Heathrow Airport, denouncing Brown as a coward and a this and a that. Mind you, he'd be forgiven for being a bit confused by his banning as he'd been in the House of Lords just two weeks ago. On this occasion he'd been due to show his controversial film, Fitna, in the Lords at the invitation of UKIP peer, Lord Pearson, and crossbencher Baroness Cox. In the event the screening went ahead sans Wilders but with all the added frisson that an official not welcome stamp on the flick's creator provides. How deliciously naughty, how rebellious Cox and co must have felt as they sunk their posteriors into their seats and waited for the opening credits to roll. Cox, incidentally, is on the advisory council of the anti-immigration group, MigrationWatch, which goes some way to explaining why she is so impressed by the peroxided Islamophobe and why neither she nor he are my cup of lapsang suchong.
As long time readers will no doubt be aware, I don't like xenophobia or religious bigotry. They are invariably constructed on the shifting sands of ignorance and irrational emotion; they aren't just wrong, they are vulgar. Now I'm sure Wilders insists that he is merely criticising Islam when he plucks verses from the Koran at random and declares that they inspire terrorism but for one thing, history records all sorts of charlatans and sadists whose nastier activities can be said to have been inspired by the Bible or Kapital or whatever text they had to hand and for another, I doubt that Wilders' classical Arabic is up to much. What people like Wilders do is churn out a kind of cod-theology of poorly-translated proof-texting, extravagant distortion and excitable commentary. It's not dissimilar to the kind of grubby anti-Semitic literature which was sold on many Mittel European streetcorners in sorrier times. It's not the sort of material a cultivated individual would want to to immerse themselves in, in other words.
But for all that, the wisdom of banning this jumped-up soapbox orator escapes me. As always, official prohibition and censoriousness are worth their weight in a gold-plated advertising campaign; at this moment, Geert Wilders who should be paddling in the obscurest of media shallows, is leading news bulletins and his cheap film has achieved cause célèbre status.
That's the practical side of the argument dealt with. But there's also a principled argument for allowing Wilders and his ilk to roam around freely, saying whatever they want to about Islam, so long as they don't actually call for anyone to be killed. That is that free speech is the best corrective to bad ideas and the best guarantor of public order that there is. Free speech has the affect of cleansing public discourse because it means not only that gutter demagogues can broadcast their particular brand of poison to the world but also that the erudite, the thoughtful and the public-spirited can counter their arguments, can refute them and can demonstrate their wrongness in the public square.
A few hours ago on BBC2's Newsnight, Majid Nawaz, who used to be a member of Hizb ut Tahrir, which was itself almost banned and is now a director of the moderate think tank, the Quilliam Foundation explained why he would have liked to have done exactly that. He said he would have delighted in the opportunity to debate Wilders and show that far from critiquing traditional, orthodox Islam, Wilders' ugly arguments were but a mirror image of those expressed by such new-fangled extremists as Al Qa'eda. I think he was coming close to describing Islamist terrorists as heretical and how sweet that would have sounded. Why couldn't he explore that thought further with Wilders in front of him, why couldn't he debate Wilders in his own country, Nawaz asked. There was no satisfactory answer. Doors slammed shut, a demagogue was deported and another opportunity for orthodox Islam to assert itself against the dangerous cuckoo in its nest was missed.