The slightly clandestine tour of Australia by Dutch politician Geert Wilders continues, with reports today that he will address a meeting in Sydney this evening. Understandably enough in light of the disturbances that he has attracted so far, his sponsors are being coy about the details: AAP notes that “The Q Society of Australia did not respond to AAP’s requests for information about where the Sydney event would be held.”
Given the controversy, I should say up front that I fully support Wilders’s right to tour Australia and air his noxious views. To keep him out of the country would do nothing to stop his opinions from spreading – modern communications see to that – but it would give him the aura of martyrdom and suggest, quite wrongly, that his opponents have something to fear from free and open debate.
Conversely, having him speak in Australia gives Wilders the opportunity, as Guy Rundle pointed out yesterday, to make a fool of himself.
So the government has done the right thing in allowing the tour to go ahead (not that that puts any obligation on private hotels or venues to accommodate him). It’s a contrast with the Howard government, which repeatedly denied “controversial” visitors the right to come to Australia, in instances as diverse as Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and German neo-Nazi Gerd Finkenwirth. It would be nice to hear what Tony Abbott, trying to reinvent himself as a supporter of free speech, now thinks about some of those cases.
And it’s depressingly familiar from other fronts in our free speech debate that those who defend Wilders – like the appalling Cory Bernardi – are, almost invariably, supporters of his position rather than partisans of free speech in general.
But although he probably finds Bernardi something of an embarrassment, it’s unlikely that Abbott has much to fear from the publicity around Wilders. The views that Wilders expresses about Islam are widespread in Australia as they are in Europe; as long as he is not tagged personally as an extremist, Abbott has more to gain than to lose from a broad airing of xenophobia and intolerance.
It must also be said that there is a substratum of truth underneath Wilders’s fantasies: religious fundamentalism really is a cancer on society and a threat to civilised values of all sorts. But there’s nothing unique about Islam in that regard; the same goes for Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, even Buddhist fundamentalists.
The mistake Wilders makes is extrapolating that danger to Muslims in general. If fundamentalist Islam in certain places is more of a threat, it’s because Muslims at this particular historical juncture are more likely to take their religion seriously – in a way that most Christians, at least in Europe and Australia, have learned not to do. But attacking their traditions and their religious identity is only likely to make that problem worse.
No Australian politician, of course, is going to draw the moral about religion in general. Muslims are a convenient scapegoat, not present in sufficient numbers (with the possible exception – oh irony! – of western Sydney) to do electoral damage to politicians that flirt with xenophobia.
The risk for Abbott is elsewhere: that, once given their head, extremists do not readily confine themselves to just one target, and that although it may be just the Muslims today, the gays, the women, the Asians and (of course) the Jews will not be far behind.
Abbott may wake up one day to find he has become the leader of a sort of Australian tea party. Mitt Romney will be able to tell him that that doesn’t end well.