Ayaan Hirsi Ali has visited Australia at least five times as far as she can remember. But this time, her lecture tour starting this week to discuss the dangers of what she calls radical Islam, or political Islam, is receiving far more scrutiny. A group of prominent Muslim women, from playwrights to human rights campaigners, from conservative Muslims to the most progressive, don’t want this tour to proceed unchallenged.
They have organised a petition expressing their “utmost disappointment” that Hirsi Ali was invited by Think Inc to Australia, due to what they say is the “hatemongering and bigotry” she espouses. Her views, they argue, serve to “increase hostility and hatred towards Muslims”, and ignore the day-to-day work of many to improve social cohesion and to champion women’s rights within their faith.
I see radical Islam as an ideology that is hostile to individual freedomAyaan Hirsi Ali
The incident highlights the complexity, confusion and emotion around the way Islam is now discussed in the west. Populist parties in Europe and in Australia such as One Nation, call for Muslim immigration to be banned, and for no new mosques to be built, with Pauline Hanson declaring that “Islam is a disease”.
Radical Islamists, citing Islamic texts as their inspiration, continue their brutality against civilians – the majority of whom are Muslims. An estimated 30,000 foreign fighters have joined them, including more than 100 from Australia.
Every day Muslims are harassed and abused, particularly if wearing visible signs of their faith such as the hijab head covering. They are weary of the demands to defend their faith and prove their patriotism whenever an atrocity occurs, when their understanding and practice of Islam is the polar opposite of Islamic extremism.
The 47-year-old, Somali-born Hirsi Ali’s compelling personal story, of a devout Muslim childhood during which she suffered genital mutilation, of fleeing an arranged marriage to become a refugee in the Netherlands and later moving to the US, and her gradual disillusionment and rejection of Islam, has become a flashpoint in this painful debate. She has paid a high price, requiring round-the-clock security because Islamic extremists have threatened her life.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, she said that while the Australian context was unique, her message would be the same.
“It’s all about freedom. I see radical Islam as an ideology that is hostile to individual freedom. It’s an ideology that seeks to govern the relationship between the individual and God, between men and women, between believers and unbelievers, and it’s got very rigid lines about what people should and should not do. It’s an ideology that’s really hostile to free societies.
“Since we [western leaders] have officially refused to link violent extremism to its roots in Islam, we have pretty much made a choice not to want to understand the problem.”
Hirsi Ali’s central argument is that the liberal, democratic west, especially its political leaders but also western Muslims, have made a dangerous mistake in insisting, for well-intentioned reasons, that the rise of Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.
She rejects the notion that the “root causes” of Islamist violence are issues such as poverty and corrupt governance and argues that its key tenets are derived from the foundational texts of Islam. She points out that many Muslim-majority countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, insist on a rigid and misogynist form of sharia law, incompatible with western notions of individual freedom and religious tolerance.
There is no clash between western democracy and Islam, and Muslim women do not need to be liberated from their IslamHana Assafiri
In her 2015 book, Heretic, she partly softened her once very strident criticism of her former religion – in 2007 she said “we are at war with Islam”, and called it “a destructive, nihilistic cut of death”.
She now distinguishes between “religious” Islam – the ordinary practices of the faithful – and “political Islam”, an ideology that seeks to spread it tentacles, including to the west. She is not the only one to say this, but she says it bluntly and often provocatively: Islam needs wholesale reform and western Muslims should play a key role in it.
Although Hirsi Ali criticises Donald Trump’s January executive order temporarily banning citizens from a handful of Muslim-majority countries as “very clumsily done”, she believes he had “every right to do it, you will see the courts will rule that”. She praises him for doing what she says president Barack Obama did not do – “recognising the ideology of radical Islam, and [vowing to] fight that the way we fought national socialism and communism.
“These are breakthroughs, now we have to wait for him [Trump], maybe urge him, to present us with some more details about how this is to be implemented.”
Many Australian Muslims consider her views simplistic and resent her being lauded as an expert in the Islamic faith, practiced by 1.6 billion people in countries as diverse as Afghanistan and Indonesia. Women such as Hana Assafiri, well known in Melbourne for her “speed date a Muslim” sessions to break down misunderstandings about her religion, helped organise the petition protesting the tour.
Assafiri was surprised that Hirsi Ali refused to meet with a group of women to discuss their differences. They offered a public or private meeting, in Sydney or Melbourne or wherever she wanted, and to work around Hirsi Ali’s need for security.
Dr Ghena Krayem, a University of Sydney law lecturer, hasn’t signed the petition – “I’m not a signer” – but she resents that Hirsi Ali is heralded as an authority on Islam, especially on Muslim women.
“Many practising Australian Muslim women would completely disagree with her view and don’t believe that she’s that authority.
“I’d love to have a conversation with Ayaan, to say: ‘You can have your views, but don’t let them drown out the many more views that are expressed about Australian Muslim women who are empowered by their faith and are part and parcel of this society’.”
The group tried to have Tasneem Chopra, the chair of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, appear alongside Hirsi Ali on the Q&A political panel show on Monday. The program’s producers declined, on the grounds that didn’t want the show to be dominated by one issue.
Says Chopra: “Within the Muslim community, it doesn’t help at all when you are trying to advocate for change and reform either in your faith tradition or cultural tradition, to have people like Ayaan who aren’t on your side … she buys into this ‘Muslims don’t fit in’ narrative that is fuelling Islamophobia and hate crime.”
Many of the women work for improved rights for women within their faith, including campaigning against practices of genital mutilation and child marriage and supporting victims of domestic violence. They don’t deny that many women in Muslim-majority countries are oppressed.
Where they differ with her is that they insist that these are cultural or political practices, and are not intrinsic to Islam. “What we all disagree with is that Islam is the enemy of the west, it is not,” says Assafiri. “There is no clash between western democracy and Islam, and Muslim women do not need to be liberated or empowered from their Islam.” Her view is that the oppression of women in some Islamic countries is due to misogynistic male leaders and their rigid interpretation of texts.
When asked about the proposed meeting, Hirsi Ali points out that the group’s petition calls her a bigot peddling hate speech. She’s tired of that, too, seeing it as an attempt to silence her and delegitimise her views, particularly the idea that because she’s an ex-Muslim she has no authority to speak on Islam.
“I’m a guest of Think Inc and it has put together enormous meetings with all sorts of people. They can come there and listen to me, and I’m sure there is a question and answer session where they can put their questions forwards, where there are masses of witnesses to hear what we have to say to one another.
“Their position about my bigotry and all that is the familiar trope. If you take a critical stance to the ideology of radical Islam you must be bigoted, because what these women and others who are proponents of sharia [Islamic law], they fail to defend the merits of sharia.
“I do want to have a debate with them on why I think sharia is hostile to our liberties, and that’s not the conversation they want to have. The conversation they want to have is ‘you are not allowed to speak on Islam at all,’ even those parts of Islam that are political and deny human beings their rights … that’s their position, and it’s frankly pathetic.”
But Hirsi Ali’s definition of what is religious and what is political Islam can lead to inflammatory suggestions, such as her call for Australia to ban all Islamic schools. This follows recent allegations that a Sydney public school had resisted anti-radicalisation programs and had excluded female teachers from participating in some awards ceremonies.
The lack of nuance that Ayaan showed in the first 10 or 15 years she is now struggling to overcomeSami Shah
It goes to her view that western countries must strongly resist the notion of “dawa”, the indoctrination and eventual recruitment of young people into Islamist ideas.
“If we allow Muslim schools, and we allow this whole process of cocooning children who grow up in liberal society,” she says, “Islamists come and persuade them not interact, to isolate them.
“Those who are raised that way, some of them try to join the jihad, or even take part in plots, and we punish them. It makes me very sad, because I think: ‘We let it happen’.
“This is comparing apples to oranges. There are very strong arguments to ban Muslim schools in the interests of the child and these arguments do not apply to Christian schools and Jewish schools.”
This could be a statement out of the Hanson playbook, although even One Nation has not yet suggested banning Muslim schools. Hirsi Ali knows she is a poster child for anti-Islam populist groups, and insists she does not share their agenda.
For instance, she does not support banning Muslim immigration, although she says fringe groups that have such views flourish if mainstream political parties refuse to name the problem of radical Islam. She argues this can be seen in Europe, where she sees that centre left and centre right parties have placed a taboo on discussing what is wrong with Islam. “That has left the field clear for these fringe elements. I hope Australia doesn’t go down that path.”
Sami Shah is a Pakistan-born writer and comedian who grew up as a Muslim but renounced the religion a decade ago. Last year, he produced a Radio National series on the complexity of living as a Muslim in Australia and has insight into Hirsi Ali’s conundrum – he tried to buy a ticket for her Melbourne show, but it was sold out.
“Any Muslim you ask hates her,” he says, “and the vehemence and the criticism they have are extremely pointed and aggressive and there’s dismay behind them.
“The lack of nuance that Ayaan showed in the first 10 or 15 years she is now struggling to overcome. At the same time Muslims are disingenuous a little bit, maybe lacking empathy towards ex-Muslim people like her.” He, too, was angry with the religion at the time he renounced it.
“A lot of us were saying it on Reddit forums quietly. There’s a lot of anger there, and someone like Ayaan just came out and said it.”
Hirsi Ali is a confounding figure, and controversial on the left, which sees her as inflaming Islamophobia. She is blunt about that, too.
“In liberal societies, those on the left [are] in the grip of identity politics. This fascination is not caused by the Islamists, but the Islamists exploit it.
“If you’re going to divvy society up into segments, based on their biological attributes such as, ‘you are gay, you are female, you are male, you are this that and the other’, and then only gay people are allowed to criticise other gay people, and only Jewish people are allowed to criticise other Jewish people, and only women are allowed to criticise other women, and on and on, you end up with a divided society.”
Her critics argue she’s not helping the cause of cohesion, either. She says they have their heads in the sand.