The decision to ban the Dutch politician Geert Wilders from coming to Britain to show his anti-Islamist film Fitna to an audience of parliamentarians at the House of Lords shows that the British are now hopelessly confused about freedom of speech. Faced with the threat of violence by Islamists, the parliamentary authorities requested extra police. The Home Office overruled them, invoking European legislation in order to exclude an elected member of the Dutch parliament.
The explanation given by David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary - Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, did not dare put her head above the parapet - was that Wilders intended to break the law. But this is absurd. His film is not banned. In the speech he intended to give to the Lords, he says: "There might be moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam." I don't agree with this view, but many Muslims do. In the West, we distinguish between Islam the religion and "Islamism", the political ideology; but many Muslims don't. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, once told me he rejected Western distinctions between "moderate" and "extreme" Islam. The decision to ban Wilders was the desperate diktat of ministers who have lost sight of the distinction between arbitrary government and the rule of law.
The notion that truth is best served by freedom of speech is deeply rooted in Western civilisation, in spite of the fact that men and women have been persecuted for their opinions throughout history. At the very inception of that civilisation, Anaxagoras - the Ionian who brought philosophy to Athens - was imprisoned for impiety, and though his disciple Pericles was able to secure his release, he was banished.