As some of you may be aware, the Australian government recently intervened to stop Dr Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips entering the country to attend a conference.(incidently organised by Muslim Matters guest writer Sheikh Abu Yusuf Tawfique Chowdhury). The opposition party, the Australian Labor Party, then tried to outdo the government by calling for fellow conference delegate Yvonne Ridley to have her visa removed and to be forcibly deported on account of things she allegedly said in the past.
Apparently, the ALP considers Australian minds far too fragile to be exposed to Ms Ridley's views. However, strangely, they haven't said anything about the fact former ALP Prime Minister Bob Hawke shared a podium with Ms Ridley at a Copenhagen conference last year and even co-signed a declaration with her on the issue of 'Islamaphobia'. Surely, if Ms Ridley can exercise such a poisonous influence over Australian minds, the ALP should also be condemning their former Prime Minister in the same language they now condemn the federal government. Of course, we won't be holding our breath for that.
The ostensible reasoning for the 'ban' on Dr Bilal Philips was that he posed some sort of 'security risk' and should therefore not be allowed to enter the country. However, the basis for this seems to be what the government believes Dr Philips has said as opposed to anything he has actually done. He hasn't, after all, been charged with any terrorism-related offences. Therefore, it seems it is, at best, his ideas that the government wishes to keep out of Australia rather than simply his person.
Of course, I don't believe Dr Philips poses any threat to Australia and his continued denunciation of extremism and terrorism, dating back many years should have stood as irrefutable testimony as to his moderation. Likewise, his frequent visits to the United Kingdom, a country which, unlike Australia, has experienced terrorism on its own soil, would suggest that perhaps he isn't the risk that some Australian politicians think or imagine he is.
However, leaving aside the particular case of Dr Philips, it raises an interesting question: should governments prevent people from entering who hold views, ideas or opinions which the government or even the majority of the population might find offensive, hateful or otherwise disagreeable?
I've written in more detail about this issue in the Herald Sun, the newspaper which originally broke the 'story' of Dr Philips' visa issues. In essence, I'm of the view that there is more benefit in allowing unpopular or even offensive views to be aired and discussed, rather than doing, as the government seems to be doing, and trying to control what words and ideas Australians are exposed to. This goes for ideas that non-Muslims find offensive as much as it applies to ideas that we might find offensive or disturbing.