February 13, 2009
The refusal to admit the oddball Dutch MP Geert Wilders to Britain yesterday marks a further retreat from this country’s traditions of free speech. It stands in stark contrast to what happened exactly 20 years ago tomorrow, when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet Mohammed in his book The Satanic Verses.
In retrospect, that was a turning point in the country’s history of free speech, an event that appeared to demonstrate indomitability, yet turned out to be a defeat. An unambiguous stand was taken on Rushdie’s behalf by the government of the day, which denounced the threat to his life and broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. Sir Geoffrey Howe, then foreign secretary, told the Commons: “This action is taken in plain defence of the right within the law of freedom of speech and the right within the law of freedom of protest.”
Despite mass book burnings, protests around the world, including in Bolton and Bradford, and threats of violence, the work continued to be published and sold. How could it be otherwise? This was Britain, after all, the citadel of free speech. We would not be brow beaten into denying the rights of one of our citizens, or anyone else for that matter, from having their say, however controversial or offensive their opinion might be.
Sadly, the past two decades have seen a pusillanimous flight into cowering capitulation. We seem to have forgotten what free speech entails, how hard it was fought for and how important it is to defend. It is the value with which this country is most associated throughout the world. It is why Britain has been home, over the centuries, to so many political dissidents who would have been persecuted elsewhere, and why those who live in autocracies that brook no criticism tune into the BBC World Service.