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The right to offend?

Gavin Hewitt | 07:58 UK time, Friday, 16 October 2009

wilders_595.jpgGeert Wilders is not important in himself. Neither is his 17-minute film on Islam. His party has nine seats in the Dutch parliament. But he is a figure around which an important argument can be had; namely on the limits of free speech in a democracy.

Wilders dislikes the Koran. He believes some of its texts encourage hatred and would like them removed. He sees Islam as "in opposition to freedom". Some Muslims are deeply offended by his views.

On the question of whether he should be allowed into Britain the judges had to consider whether his opinions would provoke violence but they concluded that "it was more important to allow free speech than to take restrictive action speculatively".

The Quilliam Society, which opposes political Islam, whilst finding some of Wilders's views bigoted, also concluded that he had not directly incited violence against Muslims. The society believes that his ideas should be challenged through debate and argument.
"Wilders has been convinced by the words and actions of Islamists and Jihadists that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant," they argue.

Others would be more hostile. What is not in question is that Wilders' views cause offence. As some have pointed out there is a long tradition of criticising beliefs. Offending religion has been accepted in Europe since the Enlightenment. From that moment on religious authority was no longer automatically accepted. After a bloody history the treatment of heretics changed. Dissenters were gradually tolerated. Offending religion and the defeat of dogma ushered in the modern world.

So we live in a society where Richard Dawkins can describe religion acting like "a child with a dummy in its mouth". Some Christians were offended by Monty Python's Life of Brian in which Brian's mother says: "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy."
But the comedy was defended as freedom of expression.

Many Christians were even more offended by Jerry Springer the Opera. Some thought it blasphemous - "depicting God as a frail old man and Christ as abusive and foul-mouthed". The court ruled that the production had not endangered the peace as a whole.

And that is where the arguments over the right to offend become complicated.

A couple of years ago I covered the row over the publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Some of the reaction around the world was violent. Some people died. Many Muslims in Denmark and around the world were angry and offended but others, while disliking the drawings intensely, accepted that they were the price of an open, tolerant society.

During that time, I spoke to Fleming Rose - the man who had commissioned the cartoons. He was deeply shocked by the response and was apologetic for having ignited such feelings but he wasn't apologetic for publishing the pictures.

What he believed was that the threat of violence should not determine whether an opinion or a picture should be published or not. That would hand the censor's pencil to the violent.

But sometimes it is a fine judgement as to whether exercising the right to offend stirs up hatred and violence too.

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