Censorship and Double Standards

The United Kingdom's selective intolerance of free speech


Last month, the Dutch government commenced legal proceedings against a sitting member of parliament, Geert Wilders, for engaging in "hate speech."  Wilders' primary offense was producing the short film Fitna, which juxtaposed sanguinary passages from the Koran with grisly scenes of Islamist violence.

A three-judge panel in Amsterdam ruled that the film—and some of Wilders' more intemperate public statements, like his comparison of the Koran to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf—warranted criminal prosecution, for he was making "one-sided generalizations" about Islam and was, therefore, "insulting Muslim worshippers" in Holland.

If it was Wilders desire to provoke liberal governments into revealing a veiled intolerance of freedom of speech—while mollycoddling religious extremists—his mission has proved a gargantuan success.

Last week, after being invited by a group of parliamentarians to screen Fitna at Westminster, Britain's Home Minister Jacqui Smith dispatched a letter to Wilders, declaring that he was persona non grata in London and would be prevented from entering the country.

But Wilders, sensing an opportunity to further highlight the British government's illiberalism, travelled to London anyway, where he was swiftly detained and sent back to the Netherlands.

It is hard to overstate the corrosive effect such rulings have on free speech—a point which seems so obvious as to barely merit further comment—but it is just as important to note that, in Britain, there exists an organized campaign to criminalize views critical of Islam.

It began with the furor surrounding Salman Rushdie's "sacrilegious" and "anti-Islam" book The Satanic Verses. Indeed, the campaign's success is demonstrated by the uneven application of government crackdowns on offensive speech.

The drive to prevent Wilders entry into the United Kingdom began with Lord Nazir Ahmed, the first Muslim member of the House of Lords. But Ahmed has had few problems with welcoming extremists of a different stripe into the country.

In 2005, he invited the extreme anti-Semite Jöran Jermas—a man whose views are so noxious that Palestinian rights campaigners have specifically warned followers from mislabeling his racism as "anti-Zionism"—to hold a book release party from his offices in Westminster. In 2006, he invited Mahmoud Abu Rideh, an accused al-Qaeda funder previously imprisoned by British authorities, to Westminster to "hear the detainees complaints."

The former Mayor of London, left-wing firebrand Ken Livingstone, admitted to a BBC interviewer last week that he hadn't seen Wilders' film, but had it on good authority that it was propaganda of the vilest sort. Because of this, Livingston agreed with Ahmed and the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown that Wilders should be denied entry into the United Kingdom.

But like Ahmed, Livingstone's standards of hate speech are malleable. As Mayor, he invited the Muslim preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London, whom he defended as a "moderate" active in the battle against Islamic extremism.

When it was revealed that al-Qaradawi defended suicide bombing, female genital mutilation, the killing of Israeli civilians, and the stoning of homosexuals, Livingstone sputtered that his critics were spreading "lies and Islamophobia" and that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was engaged in a campaign of misinformation against al-Qaradawi.

In Britain, even criticizing Islamic extremism can attract the hate speech police. In 2005, independent television station Channel 4 broadcast the documentary "Undercover Mosque," which caught spittle-flecked imams advising followers to "kill" the "animal" gays of Britain and to "Take that homosexual man and throw him off the mountain."

As a result, the West Midlands Police ended up investigating the documentary producers for potentially misrepresenting the views of the preachers it profiled, stating that it was "The priority for police has been to investigate the documentary and its making with as much rigout as the extremism the program sought to portray." They found no evidence of malicious documentary-making.

While it is doubtless true that Wilders reductionist views on Islam should be opposed, the British government's one-sided attack on free speech only serves Wilders cause. Indeed, in many ways, British authorities have themselves internalized his views of Islam.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's letter to Wilders argued bluntly that his presence would "threaten community harmony and therefore public security." In other words, stay out or Britain's Muslims might resort to violence.

Michael Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.