Recent weeks have seen a sort of unofficial race among various governments to see who can most righteously ban whom from whose territory and on what complacent grounds. Last week, the Canadian authorities announced that British Member of Parliament George Galloway would not be permitted to keep his appointment for a speaking tour he had arranged in Toronto and Ottawa. Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, said that the ban had more to do with actions than with words. Galloway had indeed, on a recent trip to Gaza, called for the Egyptian armed forces to overthrow the government of President Hosni Mubarak. But it was the announced purpose of Galloway’s trip to the Gaza Strip—the delivery of a convoy of material aid to the Hamas leadership—that prompted Kenney to deny him permission to land, on the grounds that he had delivered “aid and resources to … a banned illegal terrorist organization.”
Galloway has in the past issued his own calls for foreign politicians to be banned from British soil, as in the case of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme-right National Front. And he was not conspicuous in protesting in February, when the British government deported Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician whose party holds nine seats in parliament, after the latter’s arrival at Heathrow Airport. Wilders has made a short film called Fitna, freely available on the Internet, which shows scenes of violence and cruelty intercut with some of the more lurid injunctions of the Quran. He has referred to the Muslim holy book as comparable to Mein Kampf and has, in keeping with the new intolerant spirit of the times, called for it to be banned. When invited to debate his film on a small Dutch Muslim station, he declined. Nonetheless, he was invited by a member to come and screen Fitnaat the House of Lords and, given that he has no record of violence or its incitement, it’s hard to see how his presence in London was in any sense a police matter.
The hasty ban on Wilders, which was obviously adopted by Gordon Brown’s government as a gesture of appeasement to the very active Muslim fundamentalist wing in British politics, thereupon made it almost inevitable that the same government’s decision to invite some representatives of Hezbollah to London would itself have to be reversed. The plan had been to get some civilian spokesman of the party’s Lebanese wing to meet with officials and academics to discuss possible areas of common interest—this was in line with the British government’s recent decision to resume contacts with Hezbollah in Beirut, on the assumption that a distinction can be made between its elected parliamentary wing and its military one. Even if you think that this is based on a naive assumption, the British are at least entitled to try it. But now they find that one ban leads to another, for the sake of appearances and “even-handedness,” so that having refused hospitality to one Dutchman, they are compelled to deny themselves the pleasure of sitting down with one or two Lebanese.
Geert Wilders has already visited the United States, where he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference. Hezbollah and Hamas officials will not be visiting Washington at any early date, though George Galloway has been allowed to come and go as he pleases. (This might change, given the number of questions raised by two authoritative reports on his participation in the abuse of the United Nations’ “oil for food” program.) There is currently an argument about whether we can risk giving a job or a visa to Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim author whose supposed “moderation” is seen by some (including me) as a cover for some quite extreme apologies for such things as suicide-murder and the stoning of women. There are two separate questions in Ramadan’s case: The first concerns whether he should be given tenure on an American campus and the second whether he should be allowed to visit the United States at all. The second call seems a fairly easy one.
What is at stake in all these cases is not just the right of the people concerned to travel and to take their opinions with them. It is also the right of potential audiences to make their own determination about whom they wish to hear. As a journalist, I can go and visit Hezbollah spokesmen and report back on what it’s like and what they say, but why should a reader have to take my word for it? The British House of Commons has room for a man as appalling as George Galloway; why should Canadians not have the chance to make up their own mind about him? If Geert Wilders is persuasive enough to get himself elected to parliament in The Hague, is there any reason to believe that the British people are so lacking in robustness that they need to be protected from what he has to say?
The underlying premise of the First Amendment is that free expression, when protected for anyone, is thereby protected for everyone. This must apply most especially in tough cases that might raise eyebrows, such as the ACLU’s celebrated defense of the right of American Nazis to demonstrate in heavily Jewish Skokie, Ill., in the late 1970s. One of the effects of the “war on terror,” and of one of its concomitants, namely the attrition between the Muslim world and the West, has been an increasing tendency to make exceptions to First Amendment principles, either on the pretext of security or of avoiding the giving of offense. We should have learned by now that, however new the guise, these are the same old stale excuses for censorship. We might also notice that if one excuse is allowed, then all the others are made “legitimate” also. The risk of allowing all opinions by all speakers may seem great, but it is nothing compared with the risk of giving the power of censorship to any official.