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."