The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 15th, 2009

Labour bares its appeaser’s teeth to unbending Muslims

Has Jacqui Smith for once done something right? Was our beleaguered “second home” home secretary wise to drive away from our shores the unappealing Dutch politician Geert Wilders? Surely the government has a duty to keep out any troublemakers it chooses, if that appears to be in the national interest. Those who mutter indignantly that the eccentric Wilders is a democratically elected politician in a European Union country miss the point. At a time of real danger no one cares about niceties like that, not even those who are protesting about it. Besides, all kinds of wholly undesirable people have been elected to European parliaments. Being an elected European politician is not the best of calling cards. Those who insist that freedom of speech within the law must be absolute are also missing the point; there are times when public order trumps free speech, as the wildest of libertarians must agree. Careless talk can cost lives and grown-up governments have a duty of pragmatism. So if the home secretary rightly judged that Wilders is a man likely and possibly anxious to stir up serious trouble, then she was right to have him put on the next plane home at Heathrow last Thursday. But did she judge rightly? Or was she guilty of the poor judgment, moral funk and cultural appeasement that we have come to expect of new Labour? Wilders was told in a letter from the Home Office that he is not welcome here because his statements about Muslims and their beliefs “threaten community harmony and therefore public safety”. He may not be entitled to know what that means, but we certainly are. Yet the government has been very coy about explaining. What I think it means was that some British Muslims – enough to cause trouble and bad publicity for the government – would get upset and angry if both Wilders and his film appeared; there were protests worldwide when his film was released in Holland last year and, reportedly, threats of organised protest here. So Wilders was kept away because of tacit threats from some British Muslims who won’t accept criticism of any kind. I don’t think the ban had much to do with the equally, but differently, agitated feelings of the non-Muslim majority: if Smith had considered them, she might have realised that it was equally inflammatory not to let Wilders in. Admittedly Wilders is not the kind of visitor most people would want. It is difficult to avoid thinking the man must be as aggressively silly as his preposterous cockscomb hairdo; he has urged the Dutch government to ban the Koran as “fascist” and he is facing prosecution there for incitement to hatred and discrimination. He seems to be entirely the wrong man to make a balanced, thoughtful case about anything. But freedom of speech is not only for the sensible. And there seems to be no suggestion that his film Fitna breaks any laws here. Indeed it has, in his absence, been shown to a tiny audience in the House of Lords, without any interference from the police. Many of those who so passionately denounced Wilders’s film here last week haven’t actually seen it. We can only suppose, therefore, that their indignation was fuelled by a desire to display anti-racist credentials. David Miliband, our gaffe-prone young foreign secretary, was quick to point out that Fitna is “ a hate-filled film designed to stir up religious and racial hatred and is contrary to our laws”. But he then had to admit that he hadn’t seen it either. I have seen the film, twice. It is very short and anyone can find it easily on the internet. It did not strike me as contrary to our laws, stringent though they now are, and no one but Miliband seriously makes that claim. It is unsophisticated and one-sided and likely to upset people, yet I do not think it is factually untruthful. It juxtaposes certain texts from the Koran, commanding the faithful to kill infidels, apostates, homosexuals and so on and to take over the world, with news footage of Islamist terrorists carrying out these commands and film of Islamist supporters cheering them on. Admittedly the film does not try to distinguish between Islamist terrorists and ordinary law-abiding Muslims, or to show how Muslims have lived together peacefully with others all over the world for centuries. So Fitna is extremely unbalanced and, in that sense, misleading. However, what the film does show are precisely the things, I believe, that deeply worry a lot of non-Muslims. Again and again we are told that Islam is a religion of peace and equality; how does that tally with some of what the Koran says? What makes such anxieties really toxic is the feeling that they are suppressed and ignored by our government. Critics of Islam, however reasonable, know they are likely to fall foul of the many new Labour laws against freedom of expression, in particular against incitement to religious hatred, which was enacted under Muslim pressure. Yet despite these laws, which silence critics of Islam, Muslims are allowed to teach views that are illegal in public mosques. The awkward truth is that certain teachings in the Koran are against the law in this country – teachings about homosexuality and the position of women, for example. In some places the Koran and some other Muslim teachings are sexist, homophobic and likely to incite religious hatred. To call the Koran “fascist” as Wilders has done is stupid, empty and needlessly offensive. However, to say that some of its teachings, taken literally, are unacceptable in this country is merely to report a fact. Wilders’s visit was a disastrously missed opportunity. Keeping him out will anger many of the silent majority. Had he been allowed in, his silliness would have been exposed. More importantly, thoughtful and sophisticated British Muslims offered to debate his film. They could have discussed publicly what Muslims believe and whether they take literally the bloodthirstier parts of the Koran – although how they square these theological circles is beyond me, as is the mystery of how Christians dispense with the nastiest bits of Exodus and Leviticus. But this was a perfect moment for British Muslims to educate the public about themselves. And it was an opportunity for the government to prove that it is not prepared to appease any threatening minority, but will stand up for freedom and tolerance. But it was an opportunity this government was incapable of taking. It doesn’t even understand the importance of it.