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7 March 2010

Geert Wilders and the welcome silence of the majority

Denying an Islamophobe the oxygen of outrage.

By Sholto Byrnes

Considerable sound and fury was generated last year when Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who warns that Britain’s capital is in danger of turning into “Londonistan” (yawn), was refused entry into the country.

Now he’s been, has shown his odious little film Fitna to a small audience at the House of Lords, and . . . to what effect, exactly?

The Independent put it well in its report from the Lords:

Yesterday, after a wait of more than a year, he returned to screen his anti-Islamic film in the House of Lords, but unlike his earlier visit, which provoked a storm of debate about the right to free speech, this time few people seemed to notice.

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The politician’s flowing locks of swept-back blond hair have led some to nickname him Mozart. So it was unfortunate that Mr Wilders was forced to address the world’s media yesterday in a tiny room with a piano prominently displayed in one corner.

On the wall behind him was a portrait of Peregrine Bertie, the Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven, whose 18th-century wig bore more than a passing resemblance to Mr Wilders’s hairstyle. The duke’s expression remained calm throughout, a remarkable feat, considering the events which unfolded in front of him.

According to the Daily Telegraph, about 200 protesters gathered outside parliament, but compared to the marches and protests we’re used to having in London, that’s a pretty insignificant number.

Kenan Malik, also in the Independent, had it right when he wrote:

I despise Geert Wilders. I loathe his populist anti-immigration rhetoric. I despair of his tirades against Muslims. I find his film obnoxious.

But I also think that he has every right to be as crude and as loathsome as he wants to be. He should be free to be as rude about me and my beliefs — indeed, about anybody’s beliefs — as I am about him and his. That is the essence of robust political debate in a plural society.

It is precisely when people hear what Wilders has to say that they can draw the conclusion that he is crude and loathsome. Or, in the case of his host, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, just plain silly. Here is Lord P’s sage contribution to the debate: “To get these subjects discussed you have to sometimes be a little bit naughty, you have to sometimes say things like ‘ban the burqa’.”

The other day I came across the following quotation from Thomas Jefferson in Ian Buruma’s new book, Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, which struck me as apt:

They have made the happy discovery that the way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them.

It is easy and understandable to be outraged by a man such as Wilders, and were he to stand a chance of high office here, as he may in Holland, we would be right to be very worried about him, too. I’m rather glad, however, that this time so few people have taken any notice of his visit.

Sometimes the silence of the majority can speak far more eloquently than the righteous anger of the crowd.

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