I'm sure we all remember Terry Jones, the Florida pastor with a novel and bracing approach to interfaith dialogue – he's the one who thought the best way to mark the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks this year was to declare it "International Burn a Quran Day" (although only, as you'll notice if you look at the poster he had made, between 6pm and 9pm).
The English Defence League has announced that Pastor Jones is due to address an event in Luton in February "on the evils and destructiveness of Islam". As a result, as today's Observer reports, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, is now "under intense pressure" to ban him from Britain.
The views of the EDL should be perfectly clear by now, as should the group's low opinion of Islam. (For those who require clarification, this report by my colleague Daniel Trilling, "God bless the Muslims. They'll need it when they're burning in effing hell", should suffice.)
As for Pastor Jones: although on one level his physical similarity to the hicks and halfwits who populate the town of Rock Ridge in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles inclines one not to take him too seriously, there was nothing remotely amusing about his hate-filled proposal, nor about the international furore it caused, earning him the condemnation of the US state department, the Vatican and the US army in Afghanistan.
Is he a welcome visitor? No, of course not. Neither was the Dutch politician Geert Wilders when he came to Britain in March. I find it sickening, and distressing, too, that they should propagate such an extreme and distorted picture of Islam – just as I find it sickening and distressing that there are some Muslim clerics who do the same.
But I am also alarmed at the alacrity with which many then jump to saying that this person or that – in this case Pastor Jones – should be refused entry into the UK. The Labour MP Jon Cruddas says, "We should not allow racial hatred to be whipped up in this manner in our country" and promises to table a parliamentary motion to ban Jones tomorrow, while the Hope Not Hate campaign has set up a petition to stop him coming.
I understand the feeling behind this, but it's just too easy a response – and a dangerous one, too. The same kind of sentiment lay behind the outrage when it became clear that Nick Griffin was to appear on Question Time. These opinions are repulsive, disgusting, beyond the pale – let's ban them.
But ban what exactly? You can't ban a viewpoint, at least not from being held in an individual's mind. And if the public, verbal or written expression of that viewpoint contravenes no laws, on what grounds would you curtail it?
I was absolutely for Griffin's right to appear on the Question Time panel, for instance, because he is the leader of a perfectly legal party (one for which over half a million people voted in this year's general election and nearly a million in last year's Euro elections) and an elected MEP. You cannot have one set of rules – still less laws – for "acceptable" parties and another for those we deem "unacceptable".
Griffin, however, is a British citizen, so there is no question of not letting him into the country. What of Pastor Jones? According to today's Observer: "The Home Secretary has the power to exclude or deport an individual if she thinks their presence in the UK could threaten national security, public order or the safety of citizens. She can also do so if she believes their views glorify terrorism, promote violence or encourage other serious crime."
Clearly Jones is not a threat to national security: but endangering "public order" and "the safety of citizens"? I find it rather unsettling that the Home Secretary is expected to justify excluding a citizen of a friendly country by using the kind of vague wording that authoritarian regimes the world over use to stifle free speech. It is clear, too, that this "Man of God" does not explicitly "glorify terrorism" or "promote violence".
We consider him to be distasteful, for sure, uncivilised, uncouth, the possessor of barbaric and ignorant views. But if we value free speech at all, those can never be reasons enough to ban him. David Allen Green recently pointed out on The Staggers for the NS that when the Quran-burning (non-)event became noticed, creating huge anger that could have put Americans abroad in harm's way, "even though it was plausible to contend that Pastor Jones was creating a clear danger to others, he was not arrested. It was the persuasive and not the coercive power of the US government which was deployed to stop the gesture happening." He then asked: "What would happen in the United Kingdom?"
We shall see when Theresa May chooses to act or not. One may well ask, as we are at it, why it is that we are so concerned with restricting people's free speech while the legislation that exists to punish them, should that expression constitute incitement to racial or religious hatred, is so rarely used. Surely that is the wrong way around?
So, say I: let Pastor Jones come to Britain, and if his speech breaks any law, then throw the book at him. Make it clear that such laws truly afford the mighty protection of the state to those they are meant to shield. But if his words do not, then I would ask this:
What has anyone to fear from a man so confused and deluded that, before his Quran-burning stunt, he could seriously declare that its aim was "to send a message to the moderate Muslims to stay peaceful and moderate"?