On Monday, in Dhaka, I received a friendly rebuke from the Bangladeshi Minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism, Faruk Khan. I had described Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim nation.
''No.'' he replied. ''Bangladesh is not a moderate Muslim nation.''
He paused for effect.
''We are a democracy. Bangladesh is a secular nation. Although the majority of the population is Muslim, we do not operate under sharia law. We honour the major religious holidays of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, not just Muslims.''
We were talking at a reception in the Australian High Commission in the capital, and the mood was convivial. The minister was even wearing a cravat.
I had spent a week in Bangladesh on holiday and loved it. I've never heard the words ''holiday'' and ''Bangladesh'' in the same sentence in Australia.
The country has 160 million people, 83 per cent of whom are Muslim and 16 per cent Hindu, and they are invisible to Australians, living in fly-over territory. But they are a warm people, it is vivid country, and Bangladesh should be considered by anyone interested in travel as it used to be, before mass tourism.
Visitors might be put off by the hundreds of posters throughout the cities depicting a noose. The country is engaged in a furious national debate about imposing the death penalty on an Islamist politician, Abdul Quader Mollah, for crimes committed during the 1971 civil war when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan.
Estimates of the war's death toll vary between 300,000 and 3 million, a shocking range, whatever the number. Bangladesh is thus a Muslim nation with recent experience of oppression by another Muslim nation. Islamist parties have failed to gain significant traction. The prime minister is a woman. The leader of the opposition is a woman.
On February 5, the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh sentenced Mollah to life in prison, which caused a national outrage because a life sentence was deemed lenient for a man widely regarded as a ''butcher''.
On the day of the High Commission reception, a strike had been called by Islamist supporters of Mollah, along with many threats against people going to work, but despite the threats the strike failed. Dhaka appeared normal. The police presence was unobtrusive.
The same could not be said in my home town after I got back from Bangladesh and travelled to Liverpool on Friday. Police were everywhere. I was going to listen to a speech by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose party received 1 million votes in the last elections and who believes Islam and democracy are incompatible. His antipathy towards militant Islam has earned his family a life under police protection.
But as Bangladesh shows, and nearby Indonesia shows, there is no Muslim monolith. The problem is a strain of violent, mediaeval, repressive Islamic fundamentalism that exists within nearly every large Muslim community but does not define any large Muslim community.
After scuffles outside Wilders's speaking venue in Melbourne last week, NSW police took no chances. On my way to the venue I encountered nine uniformed police at Liverpool station; a mobile police command post; a mobile police custody unit; a row of paddy wagons; a police cordon of 36 officers at the rear of the venue; another police cordon, with 56 officers, at the front; four mounted police; two checkpoints and a metal detector. Finally, inside the hall, about a dozen plainclothes officers stood around the room.
Much like the warnings in Dhaka last Monday, the threat of intimidation in Sydney proved illusory. The protest was small, desultory and kept at a distance by the police. (I'd hate to see the bill for such caution.) The function room was packed with about 500 people. ''I could have sold a lot more tickets but we ran out of room,'' the tour's organiser, Debbie Robertson, told me. The venue was a very late compromise.
Such was the paranoia surrounding Wilders's visit that Robertson's book attempts had been rejected by dozens of venues. The event in Perth was cancelled late after the Liberal Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, pulled the plug on the venue.
As Wilders strode to the podium he was given a cheering ovation. He responded: ''I am here with a message that your political leaders do not want you to hear.'' More cheers.
His message was explicit: Islam is a social, legal and political code, not just a religion, which makes Muslim communities self-segregating and damages social cohesion.
''Do not repeat the mistakes we have made in Europe . . . we are experiencing that the more Islamic a society becomes, the less free it becomes . . . in each of our cities there is a city within a city, a state within a state . . . Islamic racism is growing inside our cities . . .''
He said Australia was experiencing the same process of incremental separatism. ''We need to shed a light on this process . . . so the most dangerous [trend] of all is governments that draft bills that restrict our freedom of speech . . . it means we are seeing legal jihad. The pro-Islamic lobby like to drag people to court . . . to spend endless time and money in the court process . . . we have to end this charade. Let the law protect people from sharia instead of selling us out to sharia.'' More cheers.
''Many politicians, including almost all Australian federal politicians, shy away from confronting Islam's intolerance . . . I'm afraid you are about to make the same mistakes through mass immigration by Muslims, and cultural relativism, which is even worse then multiculturalism . . . the intellectuals, the politicians, the media, tolerate . . . an Islam that does not tolerate us.
''The people of Europe have not fallen for the big lie . . . 57 per cent of Dutch people believe mass Muslim immigration is the biggest mistake since World War II; 56 per cent of Dutch see Islam as a threat; 64 per cent of Germans hold Islam as violent; 74 per cent of French people see Islam as intolerant.
''These people are not extremists. They stand for decency, for commonsense, for liberty . . . we do not represent a fringe minority, as your minister [for Immigration, Chris] Bowen said. We represent a majority.''
The room gave him a standing, cheering ovation. He departed, leaving behind a question: who holds the fringe view on the issue of Muslim immigration in Australia? Is it the Dutch visitor, or the political-media class that shunned him? By Paul Sheehan Sydney Morning Herald columnist llustration: michaelmucci.com