The cancellation of Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s tour was viewed as a win on both sides of the free speech argument. However, those who cheered on the news are making a fatal miscalculation.
Controversial Islam critic, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was due to arrive in Australia this week to commence the Australian/New Zealand leg of her speaking tour. Just prior to her scheduled arrival, she cancelled the tour citing “security concerns”.
This is nothing new for Hirsi Ali. She wrote the script and provided the voice-over for a short film called Submission, which was highly critical of the treatment of women in Islamic society. Theo van Gogh, Submission’s filmmaker, was shot and had his throat slit in November of the same year. On his corpse, a five-page letter was left, held in place by another knife; a letter addressed to Hirsi Ali warning her that she would be next. The perpetrator: a 26-year-old Muslim extremist called Mohammed Bouyeri, a member of the extremist Hofstad Network.
The extremists, however, were not the only ones here who weren’t too keen on having Hirsi Ali visit.
A group of Australian-Muslim women strongly protested, launching a campaign on change.org opposing her visit to Australia. They claim that her discourse is “grounded in hate-mongering and bigotry” and “her rhetoric simply serves to increase hostility and hatred towards Muslims”.
I’m sure there are members of the community that would be celebrating her cancellation. At a time when so many of us struggle to find solid ground when considering the issue of Islam, we are desperately trying to tune out the seemingly more controversial or outlandish voices as they often belong to the extremists at the opposite end of the scale that we need to ignore.
This, however, is a perfect example of where we need to be very, very careful not to tar everyone with the same brush.
Hirsi Ali’s rhetoric might be controversial but it has credibility. Her hate (or passion) had its genesis first hand, borne from a deep understanding of the matters rather than a complete lack of understanding… borne from genuine fear rather than the all too common, ignorant fear.
Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia to a Muslim family. Her grandmother organised for her to undergo genital mutilation against the wishes of her father while he was a political prisoner. Following his escape from prison, they eventually settled in Kenya where Hirsi Ali attended an English-language Muslim girls secondary school.
Around the time, Saudi Arabia had turned to funding religious educational institutions in a number of countries to assist in spreading its more hard-line interpretation of the teachings of Islam, which influenced her own education in Kenya.
After requesting and obtaining political asylum in the Netherlands, she was introduced to other, non-religious ideologies, such as the theories of psychologist Sigmund Freud. Slowly, she became more disengaged with the teachings of Islam and, following the events of September 11, found she could no longer align herself with it. After watching footage of Osama Bin Laden using words from the Qur’an to justify the attacks, she “picked up the Qur’an and the hadith and started looking through them, to check. I hated to do it, because I knew that I would find Bin Laden’s quotations in there”. Not long after reading the Atheist Manifesto she decided to renounce Islam and acknowledge her disbelief in God.
So here we have someone who has lived as a Muslim, trained as a Muslim, been a victim of a practice undertaken in the name of Islam and made the life-altering decision to abandon it. Could there possibly be anyone more qualified to join this discussion? No…there couldn’t.
If only things were that simple. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her own words, wants to see Islam “defeated” – not just radical Islam, but all Islam (they even double checked with her). The perfect soundbite for the far right who would love nothing more than being allowed to try and achieve it. At the most volatile of discussion tables, it’s a proverbial molotov through the window.
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The timing, for some, might seem opportune. Those in staunch support for the recently proposed 18C amendments might have a shit-eating “I told you so” grin on their faces, or worse still, those in serious opposition to the amendments might see this as a victory.
It’s anything but.
Hirsi Ali’s rhetoric might be controversial, and seemingly self-defeating at times, but it has something that many others trying to get a seat at this discussion table don’t have: credibility.
Her hate (or passion, depending on who you ask) had its genesis first hand. It was borne from a deep understanding of the matters at the core of the discussion rather than a complete lack of understanding of the discussion at all. It was borne from genuine fear rather than the all too common, ignorant fear.
Her statements are sweeping, and potentially damaging in myriad ways, but unlike many others who like their words delivered by broom, she’s shown an ability to self-moderate. Whilst once she was calling for the complete destruction of Islam, she now believes that reformation is possible.
Hers is but one perspective; not all encompassing of Islam any more than any other. It is no more threatening than that which we are exposed to already via our media and politicians…saying nothing for the Internet of it all. Sorting through the noise on this and other divisive issues is a difficult enough job. Removing qualified voices just adds insult to injury. Particularly when so many of the most qualified have their silence forced on them.
For those within the Muslim community that view her as divisive, damaging or non-representative, make your voice heard. Tell your story and add it to the conversation. That is when the importance of free speech becomes the most validated; when the previously silent use it to share their first-hand experience and provide a different perspective from the accepted ignorance of the time.