‘I feel sorry for the Pope,’ said Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist. ‘Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex.’ Small wonder Cardinal Pell was easily able to wipe the floor with him in their debate last April. For the next Pope, Ladbroke has Cardinal Pell a long shot at 66 to 1. Pity.
It’s not a joke, although Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who begins his Australian tour this week, writes about it light-heartedly. In February 2011 he arrived in Rome to receive the Oriana Fallaci Free Speech Award for his polemics against the Islamisation of Europe. Ten police cars escorted him from the airport. Soldiers guarded his hotel and stationed snipers on nearby roofs. ‘When I went to the bathroom in the lobby,’ Wilders reported, ‘35 policemen guarded the door.’ It was, he said, ‘the best protected pee of my life’.
This was the time when he was being prosecuted in Amsterdam. (He was acquitted.) About the same time the UK refused him entry (but later let him in). He had no trouble speaking in other Western countries such as Denmark, which had had its own experience of Islamist fanatics (with murder threats against cartoonists) or the US (the 9/11 murders). An unrelenting critic of Islamism (which he sees as more a totalitarian political ideology than a religion), his life took a turn for the worse after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004. The note which the murderer stabbed into van Gogh’s chest denounced Jews and threatened the lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wilders, who were quickly taken into protective custody. Hirsi Ali eventually fled Holland. Wilders now lives in a bulletproof ‘safe house’. He is driven to Parliament each day in an armoured car. When he speaks in public he wears a bulletproof jacket. ‘I have not walked the streets on my own’ since 2004, he says. He likes to quote Elie Wiesel who wrote in his Holocaust novel Night: When people say they want to kill you, believe them.
But Wilders has gradually won public support. In the 2010 elections his Freedom Party won 15.5 per cent of the vote and is in informal coalition with the government. His party helped defeat the Dutch referendum on the European Union constitution and it compelled the government to ban the wearing of the burka in public. Although welcomed in most liberal countries he has had his troubles coming to Australia. The government did not want to give him a visa. His polemics, it said, threatened Australia’s proud record of successful multiculturalism. But it finally relented. In the coming few days Wilders will hold meetings in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. It has not always been easy for his sponsor, the Q Society of Australia, to secure venues, especially in Sydney where some owners of public halls recalled the Hyde Park and Cronulla riots.
Wilders’ ideas are not new. He owes his fame more to courage than originality. Like most Australians — and like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom Australians have always warmly welcomed — he has no complaint about moderate Muslims who readily assimilate into liberal democratic societies. He looks to them to take the lead in overcoming politicised Islamists and their political schools and mosques. It is an issue that should be publicly debated. At least we should be able to read his book Marked for Death: Islam’s War against the West and Me. But that is more easily said than done. You won’t find it in the bookshops, and only four libraries in the whole of Australia hold it. Not one of our 39 university libraries holds it and none of the State Libraries except in Western Australia.
Back in 1957 the Tory historian M.H. Ellis lost patience with those who relied on Dr H.V. Evatt’s Rum Rebellion to blacken the reputation of the New South Wales Corps (1789-1809). He offered to donate 25 pounds to any charity Dr Evatt cared to name if he could produce any conclusive evidence of his claim that in the 1790s during John Hunter’s Governorship the NSW Corps became known as the Rum Regiment. None was produced. The offensive nickname was invented in the middle of the 19th century long after the NSW Corps had come and gone. But it received another kick-along the other day in the NSW ‘corruption inquiry’ when counsel assisting won headlines by describing today’s corruption as on a scale ‘unexceeded since the days of the Rum Corps’ 200 years ago. The infamous calumny ignores, Ellis insisted, the huge contribution that officers of the NSW Corps made to the nascent Colony, from establishing the merino industry, crossing the Blue Mountains and building the first road across them, to running the Bank of NSW, now Westpac. (One of its officers became a Fellow of the Royal Society.) I have no idea how many tens of thousands of Australians may trace their ancestry to the New South Wales Corps. Perhaps they should form a society to protect its reputation from insult and smear. If I seem unduly twitchy it might even be because my wife was, and our children are, descended from Captain Thomas Rowley of the NSW Corps, an honourable man.
Excited by the discovery of King Richard’s skeleton, the meeting last weekend of the Richard the Third Society of New South Wales had its contentious moments. One or two Ricardians wanted to picket the Genesian Theatre for its production next month of Shakespeare’s defamatory portrait of the King. Cooler heads prevailed. But the Society will make its views known in the panel discussion of the play after the matinee performance on 10 March.