Free Expression And Multiculturalism

A decision by the United Kingdom government to ban Dutch MP Geert Wilders from entering the country has led to renewed debate on the right to free expression in a multicultural and multi-faith society.

Government officials turned Wilders away at Heathrow airport in February 2009, as he was en route to the House of Lords in London for a showing of his film Fitna.

The 14-minute project, deeply critical of the Qur'an, has already attracted the Council of Europe's criticism.

In a strongly worded statement issued in March 2008, Secertary General Terry Davis and Deputy Secretary General Maud de Boer Buquicchio described Fitna as a ''distasteful manipulation which exploits ignorance, prejudice and fear.''

They complained that the film was ''simply political propaganda'' playing ''into the hands of extremists.''

British government officials took a similar view. They deemed Wilders' presence in the UK and his promotion of Fitna as a threat to ''community harmony and therefore public safety.''

However, the decision allowed the Freedom party MP, who had been permitted to attend engagements in Britain as late as December 2008, to cast himself as a victim of political correctness.

''I don't see why there's a problem with me this time,'' he complained. ''I don't understand why they allowed me to come before and not now.''

In the aftermath of the Home Office's ban, the Guardian newspaper, generally regarded as liberal in its views, reflected on ''the tension between free expression and respect for racial and religious sensitivities.''

It described Wilders as a politician skilled in promoting ''himself by exploiting the ordinary if unlikeable human mistrust of strangers'' and condemned Fitna as ''offensive.''

Nevertheless, the Guardian felt compelled to criticise the Home Office's decision. ''The consequences of the entry ban are greater than those of allowing his nasty film to remain unknown,'' the newspaper argued. ''Mr Wilders's deliberately distorted view of Islam has been widely circulated.

''Mr Wilders should have been allowed to come. The ban is a defeat for the freedom of expression.''

This viewpoint was taken up by the influential columnist Trevor Kavanagh in the UK 's best-selling Sun newspaper. Kavanagh described the Home Office's decision as a ''disgrace,'' railed against a ''cringing surrender'' to an ''authoritarian, book-burning mentality'' and used his column to advertise Wilders' views.

In a rare example of symmetry in the UK media, a conscensus emerged criticial of the government's decision. Across the media spectrum, it was considered that Wilders had benefitted from his spat with the UK government. The hitherto obscure politician received the oxygen of mass publicity for his views and some public sympathy.

Drawing the line between free speech and the public good is, of course, a task of government. However, in their March 2008 statement rejecting Fitna, the Council of Europe's leaders did offer their firm opinion.

''As the Secretary General and the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, which is the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, we defend freedom of expression, but in this case we do so with disappointment and concern. It is a sad day for European democracy when the most fundamental principles on which it has been built are used to promulgate intolerant and deeply offensive stereotypes.

''The vast majority of people in Europe , in all communities and of all faiths or no faith, believe in dialogue, mutual respect and European values. We call on all our fellow Europeans to join us in rejecting this offensive and distorted image of Islam.''


Top of page