Why Australia's free speech must be defended, whatever the cost

Despite a lot of fuss, controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders appears free to enter Australia - good news for liberty lovers

Wilders appears free to enter Australia after much discussion
Joseph Power
On 15 October 2012 12:27

It appears, despite some trouble and general kerfuffle, that controversial Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, will be free to enter Australia.  The debate surrounding Wilders isn’t just important. Allowing him safe passage into Australia is absolutely vital to cement our self-worth and self-image as a free society.

Wilders has attracted, to put it at its mildest, some controversy in his native Holland, as well as around Europe, for his remarks regarding Islam.

He made the comparison of Islam’s sacred text, the Koran, to Hitler's Mein Kampf; he wants the 'fascist Koran' outlawed in Holland; the constitution rewritten to make that possible; all immigration from Muslim countries halted; Muslim immigrants paid to leave and all Muslim 'criminals' stripped of Dutch citizenship and deported 'back where they came from'. But, he says, he has nothing against Muslims. “I have a problem with Islamic tradition, culture, ideology. Not with Muslim people.”

In Wilders’s native Holland, a number of recent events have led to his heavyset anti-Islamic politics, and unprecedented popularity. In 2004, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (great grandnephew of that painter) was shot six times at close range, while cycling to work. His killer attempted, unsuccessfully, to decapitate him with a knife, gave up halfway, and stabbed him with another, pinning a five-page note to his chest.

Van Gogh’s crime? The production of a film entitled Submission. The film in question criticised literal interpretation of the Koran that allow for the subjection of women.

Two years previously, Pim Fortuyn, another controversial Dutch politician, was gunned down in a carpark – six days before the federal election, where he looked likely to become the first openly homosexual head of state in world history – for his criticisms of Islamic extremism.

Furthermore, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born woman, who is (at the time of writing) currently based in the United States, lived under 24 hour police protection for her collaboration with Theo Van Gogh (she had written Submission) during her time in the Netherlands. She is a strident protester against the position of women in Islamic societies and the punishments bestowed onto homosexuals and adulterers by Islamic scholars.

That said, criticism of Wilders is valid. He does make somewhat of a ‘rookie’ error, by failing to distinguish between Islam, the majority of Muslims worldwide, and Islamists.

The vast majority of religionists are what I like to refer to as ‘sushi train’ believers. Your average, everyday Christian, for example, may go to church every week, but refrains from stoning adulterers to death. The same is true for Muslims, worldwide, most of whom would absolutely deplore the actions of extremists.

However, Islamism is an entirely different matter. Defined as “Islamic militancy or fundamentalism”, John R. Bradley claimed boldly that “the reality, is blindingly clear: you cannot co-opt the Islamists…give them an inch, and they take the whole playing field.”

But Australia recently waved through Taji Mustafa, the British head of Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir – a group that infamously wishes for the decimation of Israel and the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, among other things – without so much as a whimper. That its opponents, on the other hand, are stalled at the gates is therefore strange, dangerous, and a clear example of double standard at play.

One should always remember that Australia, for better and for worse, is an extension of Great Britain. My country of birth has a proud and unrivalled claim to the birth of liberal ideology. Here, the boundaries of individual liberty, free speech, and civil liberties were laid out, and later constituted in the newly formed United States of America.

To do a (modestly) brave job of attempting to sum up John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and John Milton’s Areopagitica in one go, in relation to our recent debates: when you deny a person the right to talk, you deny yourself of the opportunity of hearing what they have to say.

Even anti-Islamic ramblings may contain a fragment of truth. But, even if the evidence presented is absolutely ludicrous, it does one no harm to hear it. Most importantly, it prevents us from becoming comfortable in our views via the safety of consensus.

However, when the actions, or speech, of an individual, threaten to encroach on the immediate rights and liberties of other individuals, the speech should be curtailed. Wilders’s calls to have the Koran outlawed are ludicrous, and should never be made into law, but why would one suppress his right to say so?

Wilders is doing what mainstream European politicians have consistently failed to do: address the problem of growing Islamism. It should be disheartening then, to see the back-bending idiocy of Western politicians when treasured values such as free speech are trampled and destroyed by a fringe group who do a disservice to their coreligionists. To quote to Douglas Murray, a finer writer than myself:

“You can criticise ideas which involve, say, Christianity or Mormonism. But if you think it is possible to point out certain historical facts about Islam or comment on the religion in a way that is even mildly questioning, then a different rule applies.

The White House spokesperson does not ‘question’ the judgement of journalists who criticise Catholicism. He does not describe as ‘reprehensible’ a Broadway musical which satirises the founding of the Mormon religion. He does not criticise people who put excerpts from the films of Mel Brooks on YouTube. And nor does he call the reams of violent films pumped out from America as ‘disgusting’. Only a feeble internet film or a French cartoon gets that treatment – and the reason is obvious.”

The only possible message to send to the perpetrators of the recent violence in Sydney, over a moronic and comically-terrible Youtube film, or those who attempt to block the passage of a politician whose words they don’t agree with, is simple: this proud tradition of free speech is not negotiable.

Those who wish to claim offence on the grounds of religion may by all means do so. However, the day that ‘possibly offensive’ people are barred entry into this country for the risk of causing offence or violence because of their views, is the day when Australia loses an integral part of her identity.

As Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked, “It was Voltaire who once said: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ As Salman Rushdie discovered, as we are reminded again as the Arab street burns, that sentiment is seldom heard in our time. Once I was ready to burn The Satanic Verses. Now I know that his right to publish it was a more sacred thing than any religion.”

Joseph Power is a freelance writer from Brisbane, Australia

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