LONDON // The UK government's decision to ban an Islamophobic Dutch MP from entering Britain appeared to have backfired spectacularly yesterday. Not only did Gordon Brown's government find itself at the centre of a storm over the rights to freedom of speech, but Geert Wilders, an MP who was practically unknown outside his native Holland a week ago, has suddenly found himself a celebrity across Europe. Mr Wilders, 45, who is facing a criminal trial in the Netherlands for stirring up racial hatred, had been due to present a screening of his 17-minute film Fitna, basically, a rant against the Quran to a backdrop of footage of Islamic terrorist outrages, at the House of Lords in London on Thursday evening.
Although he had been invited as the leader of Holland's Party for Freedom by an eccentric British peer, Mr Wilders was barred from entering Britain by Jacqui Smith, the UK's home secretary. She informed him by letter that he would not be allowed to come to Britain because his opinions "would threaten community security and, therefore, public security". But he flew to Heathrow anyway and was detained amid much publicity on Thursday before being put on the next plane to Amsterdam. He branded Gordon Brown the "biggest coward in Europe" for not allowing him in. In a statement, the Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the government's stance. "Mr Wilders' xenophobic views have been identified as repugnant by a Dutch court, and are now confirmed by his official exclusion from the United Kingdom." However, the British press and public rounded on the government for stifling free speech. The country's newspapers were unanimous in their condemnation of the ban. The Independent struck a note repeated endlessly over the past few days. "Was the Home Office right to ban Mr Wilders from entering Britain? The answer is no. "Freedom of speech and freedom of movement are principles that we tamper with at our peril. Mr Wilders' opinions are certainly odious, but a free society that allows us only to say things that will not offend others is not worthy of the name." Far from all British Muslims supported the ban, either. The Quilliam Foundation, a Muslim think tank devoted to fighting extremism, said that it would have been better to allow Mr Wilders into the country so that his views could be challenged "through debate and argument". Worse, as Michael Portillo, a former Conservative government minister pointed out yesterday, the episode has made an international celebrity out of a man he described as "a twit and a bigot". Mr Wilders has not been slow to cash in on his new-found fame and is planning a "world tour" to publicise his views, starting with a screening of his film in Rome on Thursday. "This event is part of the 'Facing Jihad' world tour that will serve to expose Islam for what it is - an ideology that preaches terrorism, anti-Semitism and the oppression of women, homosexuals and non-Muslims," Mr Wilders said yesterday. The film was, in fact, shown at the House of Lords as planned on Thursday but only five peers bothered to turn up. Previously, it had held public screenings in Israel - where it attracted a record audience of 600 - in the Danish parliament and at various locations across the United States. Since Mr Wilders's ejection from the United Kingdom, however, the video on his party's website has received more than 4,000 hits and there have been countless thousands more on YouTube, the video-sharing site. Mr Brown was also faced with a formal protest yesterday from Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister. Mr Balkenende, who is no friend of the right-wing Dutch MP, called Britain's decision to bar Mr Wilders as "disappointing". But the government in London was in no mood to compromise. "The government opposes extremism in all its forms. It will stop those who want to spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities from coming to our country," a spokesman said. The government, though, has been accused of adopting an inconsistent approach to the foreigners it allows in. It was criticised last November for granting an entry permit to Rodney Pryce, a Jamaican reggae singer with the stage name Bounty Killer, whose lyrics are said to encourage the murder of homosexuals. In 2004, Yusuf al Qaradawi, the hardline Egyptian cleric, was allowed to visit Britain to speak at a conference in London, but was refused entry last year when he tried to return to the UK, apparently for medical treatment. email@example.com