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Liberals, Bans and Freedom of Expression

Chris Huhne is a Liberal Democrat.  

This, apparently, is how a “liberal” justifies the exclusion of Geert Wilders:

Mr Huhne described the film Dutch MP Geert Wilders planned to show to members of the House of Lords as “revolting”, and said there was a clear dividing line, “complete freedom of speech up to the point where you threaten others”.

“Freedom of Speech is absolutely crucial. I don’t take lightly that you should ban someone coming into the country. I think though in any civilised society there is a dividing line between freedom of speech and incitement to violence, incitement to hatred. 

“I’ve seen the film. It is revolting. It is inciting people into violence. I don’t think any minority should be out any position where potentially they could be harmed.

“The dividing line is very clear – complete freedom of speech up to the point where you threaten others. At that point society must step in, whoever you are, whatever your background.”

I agree that the film is “revolting”. It also contains a very clear “incitement to violence, incitement to hatred”

The film is revolting in two senses.

First, the film showcases a number of utterly vile Islamist politicians and preachers, who repeatedly incite their followers to violence and hatred, by using religious texts which they interpret as sanctioning violence and hatred. Although these characters should, in my view, be prevented from entering Britain, it is important that we hear what they have to say, so as better to oppose it. 

In a second sense, the film is also disgusts me because I know that it is made by a man who – according to the Guardian – advocates that:

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’.

Let us consider what that means, in practice. First, it means that Wilders regards Dutch citizens, who are Muslims, as only contingently citizens. Secondly, it means that he is happy to sacrifice our internationalist obligations to our friends in other countries – including liberals and progressives – who risk persecution for their beliefs and activities. He’d be prepared to see Maryam Namazie – for example – excluded or ’sent back’. So, when I watch Fitna, I am aware that it is part of an argument for a politics that essentialises Muslims and treats Islamists as their spokesmen. That message revolts me just as much when I hear it from Wilders as when I hear it from Hamas, or “progressive” apologists for Islamist politics. 

Wilders is no liberal. Liberals do not lack faith in their ability to convert others to their view.

Neither is Chris Huhne a liberal. 

First of all, although we’d agree that direct incitements to violence can and should be prevented and punished, there is nothing in Wilders’ film that constitutes such an incitement against Muslims. I challenge Huhne to point to the words, or sequences that constitute putting “any minority” in “any position where potentially they could be harmed”. 

Secondly, excluding somebody from the country is not an attack on freedom of expression. It cannot be. Wilders could be videolinked to the House of Lords through Skype, with about 5 minutes preparation. Fitna – and films responding to Fitna – are all over Youtube. Never has Wilders had more speech in this country, than at present. 

What a travel ban does do, primarily, is to signal this Government’s rejection of Wilder’s politics. 

But, even here, the Government has bungled the message. It has not – apparently – issued a similar ban on Islamist hate preachers, whose incitement to violence and hatred is very direct, specific, and theoretically backed by divine authority.

Neither does the rather shabby letter excluding Wilders explain precisely what the Government’s objections to Fitna and Wilders are. Instead, we are treated to a pretty obscure reference to:

“your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere. “

What are the statements in question? Are they the statements made by the Islamists in the film? In that case, why has the government not taken steps to ban these – and similar – speakers? Are they Wilders’ anti-immigration views? In that case, say so. Is it that Wilders essentialises Islam, accepting the authority of Islamists to define the religion as a hateful, violent and repressive faith? In that case, make this clear. 

Instead, the Government has given succour to those who promulgate the  dangerous notion that criticism of religious ideology, and political opposition to Islamists, is a disgraceful thing to do.

But Chris Huhne not only mistakes the Wilders affair for a free speech issue. He then seeks to defend the exclusion on grounds that are unsupportable. 

And he does it as a member of a party whose name, at least, contains the word “Liberal”.