Britain's decision to ban outspoken Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders from entering the United Kingdom last week dramatizes the religious tensions that once again loom over humankind.
Specifically, it is a sign that intolerant Muslim faithful have won the day in a nation that has always been a brave defender of free expression -- leading to constraints that normally would be imposed only in time of war.
Critics of the British decision warn that restricting tolerance and free-thinking in a democratic society threatens the foundations of Western civilization. Is this an alarmist view? Probably.
To be sure, reaction to the British ban at home has been largely negative in lively internet debates. As one U.K. citizen put it ironically, "Welcome to Eurabia, Mr. Wilders." Another wrote that the government action made him "ashamed to be British".
Wilders himself bridled at the ban, calling the British government "the biggest bunch of cowards in Europe".
Wilders was denied entry because he was considered a public danger. Allowing him into the country would "threaten community harmony and therefore public safety in the UK," said a letter to Wilders from the British Home Office. Indeed, a Muslim member of Parliament did threaten to mobilize 10,000 faithful to besiege Parliament if Wilders were allowed in to host a showing of his 17-minute video "Fitna".
On orders from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, Wilders was detained briefly at London's Heathrow Airport and sent home. He was attempting to enter Britain to accept an invitation from a group in the House of Lords to screen "Fitna", a scorching indictment of radical Islam. ("Fitna" is an Arabic term meaning "disagreement and division among people" or a "test of faith in times of trial".)
The Dutch are also attempting to silence Wilders in his own country, launching criminal proceedings against him for "inciting hatred and discrimination" and "insulting Muslim worshippers" through his public statements and the same film that sparked his British ban. The Dutch have been debating the prospect of a "Muslim tsunami" in their country for the past few years, although studies disagree on the possibility of Muslims tipping the balance against the traditional Christian culture.
The video, which has been available for free viewing on several internet sites for nearly a year, juxtaposes aggressive citations from the Koran with videos of recent Islamic extremist atrocities and incitements from the pulpit to crush infidels. Inevitably, the net effect is to paint all of Islam with the radical brush.
Part 1 can be viewed at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=5kcev1K-NOc
Part 2 can be viewed at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=TdLMFs4fv4E
The implications of the incident at Heathrow are broader than the suppression of a single film, however. Europe is feeling pressure from the worldwide Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which seeks to stamp out Islamophobia and blasphemy against Islam, trends that it believes Wilders encourages.
Islamophobia, as defined by the OIC, encompasses European immigration controls, anti-terrorist measures, and, in the case of the Netherlands, efforts to defend its culture and national identity.
Wilders has already shown his film to Denmark's parliament and intends to take it to Italy and the U.S. House of Representatives in the coming weeks.
The Heathrow incident seems to have rattled the UK government, which apparently felt the immediate need to calm Muslim sensitivities whatever the backlash from non-Muslims. It may be a muddle, but it is far from a renunciation of basic freedoms. A number of high-profile cases protecting free speech have preceded the Wilders case, including the support of Salman Rushdie against a worldwide fatwa for his novel "Satanic Verses", and the arrest and expulsion of radical clerics who preached violence and intolerance.
The Wilders case raises memories of Voltaire's celebrated remark that he might disagree with something a person says, but he defends his right to say it. In other words, Western culture mandates that Wilders' views - and his video -- deserve an airing, with judgment left to free-thinking viewers.
Please watch Geert Wilders being interviewed by BBC's Stephen Sackur:
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