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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Geert Wilders refused entry to UK

Controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders has been refused entry to the UK.

From the little I know of Wilders, I don't think I'd like him. He strikes me as an arrogant bigot. He despises Islam, and likely despises Muslims (which is not the same thing, of course). If he had the power, he would very likely adopt extreme policies in the Netherlands.

But should he be prevented from entering a country such as the UK, or Australia if he ever wanted to come here, for the purpose of presenting his views? Should he be prosecuted for religious vilification or something similar as is currently happening to him in the Netherlands?

We need to look closely at the facts, more closely than I am going to attempt here, but I think that public authorities bear a very heavy burden of proof before they interfere with the liberties of individuals on the ground of things that the individuals have said. I realise that entry into a foreign country can be considered a privilege, rather than a right, but that is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel to other countries for peaceful purposes such as putting our views on a range of issues, and provided we have complied with such formalities as having a valid passport.

Outside of the Netherlands, Wilders is probably most famous for his anti-Islam movie Fitna. Fitna is open to interpretation - it does not develop a coherent set of propositions but rather bombards the viewer with certain images that connect Islamic doctrine with Islamist terrorism. On one interpretation, it is a call to Muslims to reform their religion to expunge the elements that conduce to violence. It would doubtless be naive to assert that that is all Fitna does, though it seems to be the most overt meaning. Of course, the deeper meaning may be a message conveyed to non-Muslims: "You should fear Islam and fear Muslims." Perhaps even more sinister messages can be found there.

Compounding the problem, Wilders has not stopped at making a controversial and ambiguous film. He has advocated extreme anti-Muslim policies and made numerous public statements in which he seems to go out of his way to be as offensive as possible. As I said, this is not a man whom I'd expect to like. He has created a situation in which he is almost daring Muslim extremists to try to assassinate him. Perhaps he has a martyrdom complex, or something; I don't know.

Thus, the situation that's now arisen is more complicated and difficult than if somebody were simply trying to ban Fitna, something I'd oppose very strongly. Far from letting the film speak for itself, with all its (doubtless deliberate) ambiguity, Wilders is going out of his way to create further offence and perhaps even to make himself a security risk. That makes it far less a black-and-white issue of how governments should deal with such a man. To a very large extent, he has brought bad treatment on himself - he's deliberately tested the limits, and arguably acted unreasonably and in bad faith. It's reached the point where I hesitate to defend his freedom of speech; I can see this case from the point of view of the Dutch and British authorities.

Nonetheless, the right of the state to prevent someone shouting fire in a crowded theatre, or to prevent a demagogue from inciting an angry mob to immediate violence, must be confined closely, or these exceptions to freedom of speech will eat up the rule. So let's try to get this clear.

If someone invited Wilders to be, say, a commencement speaker at a university, that would be a poor decision, and we would have good reason to protest and argue that the decision should be reversed. No one has any legitimate expectation of being granted a great privilege of that kind, and someone so divisive would be a very poor choice. More generally, people who have the power to extend a prestigious platform to highly-divisive (or worse) speakers ought to consider how their power could be put to better use. In the end, though, the state should not interfere. It is their decision to make (but our decision whether we ask them to change their minds).

But when the state itself starts to prosecute someone for what they've said, or when it starts to keep someone out of the country for what they've said, I believe that it needs absolutely compelling justification. Wilders has probed at the limits to the point where it's difficult to feel sorry for him, but in any case like this, where there's ambiguity, we really must lean towards freedom of speech.

I'm not going to jump up and down defending Wilders, given his own behaviour, but he has not reached the point of, say, inciting specific acts of unlawful violence. In those circumstances, he should not be prosecuted for what he's said, and a country like Britain should be very reluctant to exclude him from its borders. It should concentrate on providing security for him, even if he's courting assassination, not on keeping him out. Only if it has some very solid basis to think that Wilders' behaviour is endangering bystanders, should it refuse him entry.

Unfortunately, it's easy to imagine the reaction if Wilders entered the UK, and if he were then assassinated on British soil by a suicide bomber, with massive loss of life all around. I can understand that fear, but I think we should be very reluctant to give in to it.

I don't say this with enormous enthusiasm, but I do say it clearly: "Let Wilders into the UK. Stop trying to prosecute him in the Netherlands."


Steve Zara said...

Thank you for this Russell. I have been troubled by the immoderate reactions on both sides of this. Few seem to realise that this is a difficult situation, probably engineered to be that way by Wilders. This is a situation where simplistic analyses seem to swamp any real attempt to understand what is going on. I don't know if Wilders has a martyrdom complex, but he sure knows how to stir things up, and I find his attitude worryingly common (although usually from those who remain anonymous). I agree with you - he should have been allowed in, but with great reluctance.

Brian said...

Russell, how does this compare to someone like Holocaust Denier David Irving being prevented entry into Australia? (I think he was denied entry). Irving spouts all sorts of obscene, hurtful, nonsense but I think letting him spout it a good thing in that he isn't made into a martyr and his views can be seen for what they are. I think along those lines with Wilders too. I guess with Wilders there is a public order/safety angle. Though I don't think that because the offended party (some mad Mullah for example) says we won't be responsible for what happens if you let him in that we should bow to them. But then again, he is picking on a group of people who are marginalized. Only a few muslims from what I can tell deserve the opprobium they receive.....Anyway, I have no answers, I guess as you say, when it's ambiguous and in doubt, then don't block his entry....

Russell Blackford said...

In Irving's case, I'd let him in. I despise him, but I don't think there's any good case to keep him out of Australia. There might be a case to keep him out of Germany, but I wouldn't even want to commit myself to that.

OTOH, if a local university invited him to give some kind of prestigious address, such as an address for a graduation ceremony, I'd be protesting against its choice.

Russell Blackford said...

btw, I didn't realise when I posted that Udo had also posted on it. He has an interesting take:


Brian said...

Yeah, that makes sense. Like the Ben Stein kerfuffle recently.

Brian said...

What's your opinion of Udo's take? I agree with the idea that we shouldn't decide our actions on supposed threat of people who could get offended. That sort of self-censoring isn't great for freedom of speech...

Russell Blackford said...

I wouldn't analyse it in quite Udo's way, but he makes a very fair point: Wilders is kept out while people who seem at least as evil and bigoted are allowed in. Clearly, that's a situation to be avoided if at all possible. Let them all in.

That said, there may well be circumstances in which you have to cancel some meeting or presentation, or whatever, no matter how "nice" the presenter is.

Imagine that someone innocuous or even admirable, like Bono, is about to give a concert or deliver a speech on aid to the Third World. Then there's a credible, imminent bomb threat. You'd cancel (or at least postpone) the event - not because Bono is a bad guy, but because you really have no choice in the interests of public safety.

What if you have a speaker who openly says in his public speeches - aimed to infuriate Muslim extremists - "Come here and bomb me"?

There comes a point where it is irresponsible to act in certain ways (even verbally) or to allow such conduct to go ahead in the time and place announced. But it's a strict test. Opponents of free speech always make the point that free speech does not mean freedom to shout "Fire!" (falsely) in a crowded theatre. But that analogy has got to be applied very narrowly or else exceptions eat up the rule. Opponents of free speech don't add that the analogy was applied in a very shonky way in the American court case where it originated, or that that case is now probably bad law.

We should be making sure that we cancel events, keep people out of the country, or whatever it is, on public safety grounds only when there is an imminent, credible threat. We should also make sure that we do no more than is really necessary. E.g., if there's a credible bomb threat, some speaking engagement by Wilders may need to be cancelled or postponed. But that's not a reason to keep him out of the whole country.

It's certainly not enough that someone, somewhere in the jurisdiction, may riot. There's always the risk of people somewhere in the jurisdiction rioting if they take offence at ideas that they don't like and decide to go on a rampage in response. That's not the sort of risk that should intimidate the authorities. Their role is to protect free speech, not to placate irrational people who don't believe in it.

Brian said...

Great comment Russell. It's a balancing act, no absolutes, but preference is given to free speech except in the most extreme cases I suppose.

Blake Stacey said...

Opponents of free speech always make the point that free speech does not mean freedom to shout "Fire!" (falsely) in a crowded theatre. But that analogy has got to be applied very narrowly or else exceptions eat up the rule. Opponents of free speech don't add that the analogy was applied in a very shonky way in the American court case where it originated, or that that case is now probably bad law.

Good points.

As a fiction writer, I can think up circumstances in which it would be good to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. I recall an episode of the TV show The Pretender in which claiming there was a bomb in a public building was played as the right thing to do — the threat which was actually lurking was much scarier.

This would seem a silly point to make, if I hadn't seen so many people try to defend "enhanced interrogation techniques" by appealing to storylines from 24.

Anonymous said...

"Russell, how does this compare to someone like Holocaust Denier David Irving being prevented entry into Australia? "

An event such as the Holocaust is an absolute and can only be viewed from the objective.
An ideology such as Islam and it's holy book the Qu'ran being linked to violence are open to interpretation and can be viewed from the subjective.