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How much intolerance must we tolerate?

By Xavier Symons - posted Tuesday, 26 February 2013

With Dutch politician Geert Wilders having departed Australia, many Australians are breathing a sigh of relief. 'The harmony in our society can continue now that that hypocritical extremist has left the country', some may be thinking.

But perhaps it's good to pause a little and reflect on the debate that Wilders stirred up. In the discussion we can perceive a number of deep tensions within the idea of 'tolerance', a value that is the bedrock our pluralist society.

Wilders, who spoke at venues around the country last week, labelled Islam "a totalitarian political ideology"that "aims to impose its legal system on the whole society". In his speech in Melbourne on Tuesday, he called Islam "a religion of violence"and Mohammed ''a warlord, terrorist and paedophile''.


He criticised the approach of 'tolerance' as perilous for Western society: "If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose...our freedom, our identity, and our democracy".

Most Australian politicians ran with the tolerance line and dismissed Wilders as a bigot. Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said that "These views are views that should be condemned...they are intolerant views". West Australian premier Colin Barnett said that Wilders would cause "trouble and dissention"in the community. "I don't want him here"Barnett said.

But it was interesting that he was eventually granted a visa, and allowed to visit Western Australia, despite the intense criticism from high profile politicians. The immigration department initially refused Wilders entry into the country, and only reconsidered their decision in January.

This was, it seems, an attempt to promote the value of tolerance. The State and Federal governments were willing to suffer Wilders for the sake of a greater good, maintaining an ethos of tolerance.

Wise move, some may think. But there is a dilemma: are we really promoting the idea of tolerance if we allow someone who is self-confessedly intolerant to grandstand around the country? Should we really allow such an incendiary anti-muslim speaker to stir up the community?

In the end, for tolerance to work, we can't have intensely intolerant agents within our society. Their influence can be toxic, and undermine our shared values. Sometimes, it seems, we have to be intolerant to protect our tolerant society.


One question we have to grapple with is whether speakers like Wilders are so intensely intolerant that they will undermine the harmony in our society. Wilders isn't running around burning Korans or effigies of Mohammed (though he has made a extremely scathing film about Islam, entitled "Fitna").

But there was a violent protest down in Melbourne, where one man was attacked on his way to the Wilders lecture. Perhaps though, minor protests aren't sufficient to take the radical step of denying Wilders the right of free speech.

There is another question we have to consider: What if someone like Wilders is right? We might consider an example from the other side of politics: outspoken critics of vitriolic Christian religions should be allowed to campaign against these religions (though very often about 'fundamentalist' Christianity are exaggerated). We would wave the requirements of tolerance here if the target is clearly an intolerant group themselves.

Personally I think I strongly disagree with Wilders claims about Islam. I think Wilders has an grossly simplistic understanding Islam, both in its theology and its current political manifestations. But this is beside the point.

Over the past week we have witnessed the great tension in our celebrated value of tolerance. It's the best means we have of allowing for harmony in society. But tolerance sometimes demands superhuman discretion to implement. The Wilders situation will no doubt repeat itself in the future (possibly in the near future with the visit of Sheikh Abdur-Rahman Al-Sudais, a provocative Muslim Imam, for the Melbourne Islamic Peace Conference). In the end, I suppose we have no choice but to tolerate these imperfections.

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Xavier Symons is deputy editor of

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