The Australian visit of Geert Wilders, particularly following the late cancellation of his Perth appearance, continues to attract media coverage, some considerable time following his departure.
During his visit tensions were inflamed, security concerns were rife, intimidation was evident with respect to facilities bookings, and political sensitivities were disturbed.
Amongst all of this, several concurrent discussions were running, not necessarily in sync with one another. One of these discussions was about the virtues of free speech. Another was about the dangers of radical Islam. Another was about political agendas and coercion.
Here in Perth our Premier spoke out. In the midst of an election campaign he was on a hiding to nothing, and didn’t need a divisive issue such as this. In an effort to display assertive leadership he strongly opposed the visit, but went too far by establishing a Government precedent that practically meant that no public venue would be on offer.
Over east, many Jewish groups spoke publically on the matter. The Bnai Brith ADC, although their website has yet to be updated at the time of posting, strongly opposed the visit on the basis of challenging Mr Wilders ideology, and also endorsed a statement by the ECAJ on multicultural harmony.
Sadly, on this matter our representative Jewish leadership has missed the point entirely. There was no need to say anything given that there are diverse viewpoints within the community relating to this visit. The ECAJ statement danced around the prejudicial issues and only served to pander to those who wish to allege that fear and intimidation is rife in Australia.
The rest of the communal response seems to be reactive, not directly against Mr Wilders, but against the media and protest movement that dragged out stereotypical imagery relating to conspiracy theories, political control, and related anti-Semitic innuendo. Once again, the precious airspace that could be used constructively for positive debate has been suffocated by typical condemnation of those who will never be convinced to give up their entrenched and warped world view.
I would like to focus on the one aspect of the Wilders debate that has been most discussed, being the marketplace of ideas and right of free speech. On one side of the debate you have the supporters of Voltaire saying “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. On the other side of the debate you have those who advocate censure saying “Some ideas have no place in our society and their expression should be supressed for the sake of community harmony and wellbeing”.
It is hard to take an in between position on matters of freedom of speech, most of which tend to be absolute in nature.
Allow me to juxtapose this recent situation with a similar situation that occurred not so long ago. David Irving, a Holocaust revisionist was refused access to Australia on the basis of his beliefs. When this occurred it also fuelled a media debate about free speech. So what is the difference between David Irving and Geert Wilders?
For once, this is a discussion that can only be resolved by moving beyond the realm of ideals and down to the level of substance. This question can only be answered when it is acknowledged that the real issue is not about the sacrosanct value of the freedom of speech, but rather it is about how that freedom of speech is applied.
The argument of David Irving that the Holocaust was fabricated is tasteless and offensive, harmful and destructive. It is also clearly and factually refutable by clear evidence. It is beyond the tolerance threshold of a decent society on the basis of its content, as much as it is on the basis of its intent.
The argument of Geert Wilders that Sharia Law and radical Islamism is a threat to western society is provocative. It instils fear in some people. It is not tolerated by a section within our society. However Geert Wilders is framing a position that essentially asserts support for multiculturalism where it does not seek to impose religious or cultural conduct into a host society. He has clearly noted he has no problem with a brand of Islam that respects the law of the land (in our case constitutional separation of State and religion) ahead of religious dictum, and the freedom of anybody to have the faith of their choosing. It is outrageous that he is denied a platform in Western Australia to espouse this position.
Furthermore, should either the tone or substance of this message reach an unacceptable point, the consequences will include a loss of support for Mr Wilders from reasonably thinking people. The message above should not precipitate violence and harm, but were it to boil over, it also needs to be recognised that it will only be those who perpetrate protest violence and rioting that are engaging in criminal behaviour. The point is well made by Jeremy Jones, that there is a safety net within Australia in the form of racial vilification legislation, such that should Mr Wilders or any other person in this Country overstep the boundaries of acceptable public speech, a barometer and legal remedies are in place to assist to define this. The judicial process is fair and non-violent, which is what we would expect to encounter as the Australian way to resolve a socially divisive issue.
For the record, I am not an advocate of the Q Society of Australia, and a number of their expressions and the tone of some of their communications do not sit comfortably with me. However through facilitating a tour to Australia of Mr Wilders the Q Society has successfully brought to the fore an underlying issue of extreme importance to Australian rights, and pushed this matter to a head. The inability of Geert Wilders to speak publically in Perth has demonstrated their point well, and woken many Western Australian’s up to the realisation that our society is perhaps not as open and harmonious as we would expect it to be.
As a Jewish resident of Western Australia I am appalled that anti-democratic hate groups have essentially triumphed. A freedom of speech that sits well within an acceptable zone of public discussion has been stifled. The fear of physical repercussion has outweighed the open marketplace of ideas. There are no winners here. The tolerance threshold has been lowered and the limbo competition has been cancelled.