In a blaze of publicity, the anti-Islam campaigner was refused entry to Britain
Three days ago, few people in Britain, other than those of the far right, knew of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Yesterday though, in an own goal by the British Government, the anti-Islamist was handed a stunning PR opportunity when he was turned away from Britain.
Apart from two empty rows at the front – reserved for Mr Wilders and his two giant, shaven-headed bodyguards – there wasn't a spare seat on flight BD104 from Amsterdam to London. One third of the plane was filled with reporters and cameramen, there to chronicle the moment the Dutch demagogue defied a Home Office ban on him entering the country.
Mr Wilders, 45, had been due to show his film Fitna, which equates Islam with fascism, in the House of Lords last night. He never arrived – but did garner much helpful publicity. At the front of the plane, Mr Wilders held court. "I am no champion of anything," he said. "I'm just trying to exercise my right to free speech.
"My message to the British Government is that I am sad that the ghost of Chamberlain still resides in Britain instead of the ghost of Churchill. I would say to [Britain], even if you don't like me, even if you don't like my thoughts, be brave and defend freedom of speech. If you don't then you are weak and you are cowards."
When the plane landed at Heathrow at 2pm, the circus continued. Two plainclothes immigration officers walked on to the plane and escorted Mr Wilders off for questioning – pursued by the media pack and bodyguards. "Is this how Great Britain meets a democrat?" the blond populist demanded.
He was sent back to Amsterdam on the next flight at 4.30pm. It is thought to be the first time Britain has refused entry to an elected European politician since the creation of the EU in 1993.
Mr Wilders seemed happy to have used the one-hour flight to rail against the British Government, which he accused of appeasing "Islamofascists" and stifling free speech. He repeated some of the criticisms of Islam that have made him so reviled.
Most Dutch passengers seemed to understand what all the fuss was about but Bridget Naughton, an Australian living in Utrecht, was nonplussed. "To be honest I don't even know who he is," she said. "All I do know is that he's taken my seat. When I checked in online last night I was in the front row, but now it appears this Mr Wilders has taken it."
Mr Wilders had been invited to the House of Lords by Lord Pearson, a Ukip peer. His 17-minute-long documentary Fitna is named after the Arabic word for "civil war", and was shown last night regardless. The film links Islamic texts with footage of terrorist attacks and calls the Koran a "fascist book". It has caused waves of protests across the Muslim world, which Mr Wilders responded to by warning of a "tsunami" of Islam swamping the Netherlands; calling for an outright ban of the Koran in Holland and a halt on the construction of any new mosques. He faces prosecution in Holland for inciting hatred and discriminating against Muslims and their religion.
Yesterday, he denied any suggestion that he was being hypocritical to demand a ban on the Koran while simultaneously criticising the British Government for attacking his right to free speech. "I don't see a problem there," he said. "I'm talking about the Koran, I'm not talking about the people. Unlike in the UK, in Holland we have banned [Hitler's] Mein Kampf and I see a comparison between the two books. They are both books full of totalitarian ideologies and they both incite violence."
Muslim groups in Britain reacted angrily to his comments yesterday and praised the Government for deporting him. Mohammed Shafique, director of the Ramadhan Foundation, a group that promotes interfaith dialogue, said: "Mr Wilders' film is all about demonising and attacking Islam and Muslims. He is a modern-day Hitler, his hatred on Islam is based on fiction and his presence in the UK may lead to community tensions. This is not about freedom of speech but about stopping the incitement to religious hatred this man promotes. The Government has been right in banning this man and there should be no let-up in letting him through."
Mr Wilders said he intended to return the UK soon, regardless of whether or not the ban on him is lifted. The Netherlands has pressed for a reversal of Britain's decision to ban him.
Holland's Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen, said: "It is highly regrettable that a Dutch MP should be denied entry to another EU country." The Dutch ambassador to Britain, Pim Waldeck, was at Heathrow to offer Mr Wilders assistance.
In a final, somewhat surreal gesture on the flight to Britain, a Dutch gossip journalist handed the politician a pink burqa and said he should try to enter the UK wearing it in order to fool immigration officials.
Double Dutch: The view from Holland
"The British ban appears to trample on fundamental rights enshrined by the EU and the Council of Europe but it also harms the concept that Europe is one open space. London used to be a refuge for extremists and radicals who came from all corners of the world. Russians, Chechens, Algerians and other radical Muslim groups were allowed to settle there. Karl Marx fled to London from Paris. Wilders had a return ticket. Even under a stricter regime, it should be possible for him to come to London.
"Whatever one thinks of Wilders' views, he is an elected representative of an EU country. He has a diplomatic passport to allow him to travel freely. The EU is a symbol of the free exchange of persons and ideas and Britain cannot swoop down on this freedom just by using the argument that Wilders wanted to spread 'extremism'. The British appear unimpressed by efforts by Dutch ministers to get them to reconsider. But the Dutch will have to take them to task over this."