It was a good thing that Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch politician, came to visit Australia last week. Because sometimes we need to be reminded that living in a liberal democracy isn't always easy or edifying. Sometimes it can be hard work.
I'm referring to the brute fact that we can't always come to agreement. Often when there is unavoidable disagreement, the best we can do is to exercise the virtue of toleration. To put it plainly, we have to put up with things we may find repugnant. We have to tolerate the intolerable.
For the vast majority of us, Wilders' views belong to this category. He believes Islam is ''a dangerous totalitarian ideology'' that is incompatible with liberal freedom. The prophet Muhammad was, he argues, ''a warlord, terrorist and paedophile''.
According to Wilders, Australia should cease accepting Muslim immigrants. While we're at it, we should ban the Koran and the building of mosques. Any accommodation of Islam will ultimately deprive us of ''our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties''.
It doesn't take too much thought to understand that Wilders' message is one of hate and division. Even so, I've always believed it was right that he be allowed into the country. Short of Wilders breaking laws or inciting violence, the proper response wasn't to keep him out or expel him - it was to demonstrate the falsehood of his views.
The Wilders visit has presented, if anything, an occasion for us to reaffirm the success of multicultural Australia. Somewhat ironically, the past week has been a good demonstration of how Muslim communities in this country have exercised that liberal virtue of tolerating the intolerable. Contrary to type, there were no burnings of effigies, no local fatwahs issued.
Not nearly enough has been said about our liberal toleration of Wilders. For all the predictable complaints about political correctness shutting down free speech, our Dutch guest enjoyed a broad national audience. There have been interviews and news reports on television, radio and newspapers (not to mention social media). At the time of writing, the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has received not one complaint about his visit to Melbourne. So much for any alleged multicultural censorship.
Wilders may have done us a service in getting us to exercise our muscles of civic forbearance, but let's also outline why he is so wildly wrong.
For all of their talk about liberal freedoms, Wilders and his ilk are profoundly illiberal. They endorse free speech, but fail to accept this means those who disagree with them have the freedom to denounce them too. They speak highly of a free society, yet forget that a liberal state must not dictate its citizens' religious convictions.
Let's not mince words. Wilders and his local Q Society supporters are proponents of a thinly veiled form of racism. It's the sort you hear from the sly bigot who says he hates Asians or Jews or Muslims - but only in the abstract. It's the sort that results in someone being judged not on their deeds or character, but on something else.
It is assuring that most political leaders rejected Wilders' views as unacceptable. Particularly noteworthy was the response of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who said that ''Muslims in this country see themselves rightly as fair dinkum, dinky-di Australians, just as the Catholics and the Jews and the Protestants and the atheists see [themselves] as Australians.'' Moreover, Abbott noted that ''there are very few lessons that Holland has to teach Australia when it comes to the integration of newcomers''.
On this, Abbott is correct. It is true that the Netherlands, like many countries in Europe, has had its difficulties with migrant integration. In the case of the Dutch, their governments believed that the ''pillarisation'' model they traditionally used to deal with religious and social differences would work with cultural diversity. They never put in place policies to ensure new arrivals would be equipped to participate in Dutch life. They were too diffident in asserting the importance of a unifying Dutch national identity.
The Wilders visit has presented, if anything, an occasion for us to reaffirm the success of multicultural Australia.
In Australia, however, we have struck the right balance between solidarity and diversity, between rights and responsibilities. Where a cultural practice is inconsistent with parliamentary democracy, the rule of law or individual liberties, we are bound to decline to endorse it.
It's as simple as that. Official multiculturalism has never meant cultural relativism. It has been about ensuring all immigrants make as smooth a journey as possible to becoming Australian citizens. The debate about culture and religion is clearly a live one. But if we are to conduct it in good faith, one thing must be made clear. Europeans have a lot more to learn from us than we have from them.
Tim Soutphommasane is an Age columnist, a political philosopher at the University of Sydney and a member of the Australian Multicultural Council. Twitter: @timsout