The decision to ban Geert Wilders from Britain has all the hallmarks of clumsiness, lack of perspective and cowardice in the face of organised bullying that we have come to expect from the Home Office. And it has drawn predictable reactions. Melanie Phillips, for example, sees it (as she sees virtually everything nowadays) as evidence of western suicide and surrender to the forces of militant Islam:
Wilders is a controversial politician, to be sure. But this is another fateful and defining issue for Britain’s governing class as it continues to sleepwalk into cultural suicide. If British MPs do not raise hell about this banning order, if they go along with this spinelessness, if they fail to stand up for the principle that the British Parliament of all places must be free to hear what a fellow democratically elected politician has to say about one of the most difficult and urgent issues of our time, if they fail to hold the line against the threat of violence but capitulate to it instead, they will be signalling that Britain is no longer the cradle of freedom and democracy but its graveyard.
But such a response is simplistic. For it is not Wilders alone who has been banned. Many radical Muslims have been made subject to similar orders, from Omar Bakri Mohamed, the quondam "Tottenham Ayatollah" whose surgically-enhanced daughter was the subject of much media interest last year after she was discovered working as an exotic dancer, to the celebrated and influential Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi. Qaradawi was once welcomed to Britain by then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, but his unlovely attitudes towards women, Jews, homosexuals and suicide bombers (he would seem to dislike all except the last) led later to his being banned from coming to Britain in a private capacity for medical treatment.
Now, as it happens, I did not support the banning of Qaradawi any more than I support the banning of Geert Wilders. I find the man and his views odious, and the spectacle of him being (literally) embraced by Livingstone turned my stomach, as it turned many other people's. But that was merely an embarrassing stunt by a politician, and in any case his reputation never really recovered from it. The way to discredit Qaradawi and his ilk is to defeat their arguments, not to ban them. Bakri, who may well have been involved in inciting terrorism, is another matter. Be that as it may, the Home Office's record when it comes to banning people does not reveal any special solicitude towards radical Muslims or persecution of their opponents. What it does reveal is an attachment to expediency and a lack of interest in such matters of principle as freedom of expression.
The British government has long displayed a pronounced tendency to ban people whom it finds uncongenial or otherwise inconvenient from entering the country. Wilders finds himself in interesting company, alongside the likes of Louis Farrakan, Martha Stewart, Snoop Doggy Dog, the homophobic Reggae singer Sizzla, the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and various animal rights activists.
With Wilders, the decision (imagined as one of principle) would seem particularly hard to justify. The letter sent to the Dutch politician via the British embassy states that his presence of "would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK." What this appears to mean is not that Wilders himself would stir up violence or hatred, but that his opponents would, against him. In other words, some well, organised, angry Muslims, perhaps mobilised by Lord Ahmed (who had earlier threatened Parliament with ten thousand protestors), would make a lot of noise, and there might be trouble. This would be very inconvenient.
Lord Ahmed, who is currently on bail and facing a jail sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, is happy with the decision, needless to say. "It would be unwise to have him in the UK because this man's presence would cause hatred," the BBC report quotes him as saying. Hatred of Wilders, that is: "When Muslims are attacked obviously you will see people react to that." In the Ahmed view of the world, the presence of Wilders in the UK constitutes an "attack" to which violence is, if not an appropriate response, then certainly an understandable one. Whether or not their decision was taken as a result of his lobbying, the Home Office seems to agree.
Unless they have evidence that terrorists are specifically targeting Wilders, it seems unlikely that the "threat" is at all serious. At most it would necessitate the presence of a few police officers. Wilders was not even due to address a public meeting, merely a small screening of his widely-seen and readily available film Fitna, followed by a "question and answer session" with representatives of the press. There would, in other words, have been ample opportunity for those present, press and Parliamentarians alike, to question Wilders, to point out, if they wished, the ugly undertones that they detected in Fitna. Lord Pearson, who organised the screening, has invited Ahmed to come along - although not, it seems, the ten thousand angry Muslims who apparently look to the peer for their direction.
Jacqui Smith's decision, as well as being legally questionable, shows spinelessness and lack of principle. But that is only the normal behaviour of the Home Office, and indeed New Labour generally. On the one hand there is a patronising attitude to "communities" who are seen as in constant need of placation, on the other the age-old fear of the mob. They are not banning Wilders for his views; they are banning him because of the views of his opponents - but that they approve of his opponents, but because they are obsessed with preserving order and control. It is the same instinct that led the then Home Office minister Fiona McTaggart to openly sympathise with Sikhs rioting outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre because they disapproved of the unflattering portrait of their community in the play Behzti, written by a young female Sikh. It's not that the government wants to stifle free speech: it's simply not something they care enough about to want to make a stand.
The Valentine's Day sees the twentieth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Despite violence and intimidation, The Satanic Verses remained in print and Western governments upheld the principle of free expression. All that now seems to belong to another age.