Islam critic's tour cancellation renews free speech debate

Dutch feminist and political writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2007 Source: AAP

Controversial Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi-Ali's last-minute cancellation of her speaking tour of Australia has renewed debate over freedom of speech.

Ms Ali's tour was due to take in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland, but a statement cited only "a number of reasons including security concerns" for her cancellation.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is no stranger to controversy.

And given the recent debate surrounding changes to the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia's parliament, Ms Ali's decision not to go ahead with her speaking tour has given the discussion of 'freedom of speech' more momentum.

Prior to the cancellation announcement, website Person of Interest published a video called "Ayaan Hirsi Ali: You don't speak for us", which showed a number of Muslim women responding to Ms Ali's views.

So far, it's been watched nearly 600,000 times.

The group had extended an invitation for Ms Ali to meet them, to discuss and contest her views regarding Islam and the status of women in Islam.

A petition expressing disappointment that Ms Ali was planning to come to Australia was signed by just over 400 people.

Federal Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Fyrdenberg was involved in the Turnbull Government's unsuccessful bid to adjust the wording of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Mr Frydenberg has told the ABC's Q&A program it's regrettable she's been forced to cancel her tour.

"People have sought to prevent her coming to Australia because they see her as the enemy of tolerance, whereas I see her as an enemy of intolerance. And personally I don't agree with everything that she has said about Islam but it's interesting to see that she has received support more broadly, for example from the president of Egypt, President al-Sisi, who has talked about the need for reform in Islam. I was shocked to see psychologists, doctors, lawyers, community activists all agree that she shouldn't be coming here to Australia to speak her mind."

Opposition MP Linda Burney also appeared and said, "In the electorate that I represent, there are many people from many faiths around the world and freedom of speech is held very highly, and very importantly, by all of those people. And the implication that somehow or other that one particular faith shuts down freedom of speech I don't think is an accurate one, certainly in Australia."

Ms Ali is a controversial figure, and her life experiences have shaped her outspoken views.

She was born into a Muslim family in Somalia and was a victim of genital mutilation.

Ms Ali became a refugee as she fled the civil war and was then married to a Somali man against her will.

She renounced her religion and sought political asylum in the Netherlands in the early 1990s.

Ms Ali has been an outspoken critic of radical Islam and sharia law and has called for moderate Muslims to reform their religion.

Reverend Peter Kurti from the Centre for Independent Studies describes Ms Ali as "a significant figure."

"I think it's a crying shame actually because I think she is a person who is an important voice in contemporary Islam. I know she provokes very strong reactions from people who don't want to hear what she has to say. But she is an important voice and a significant figure because of the courage she has displayed in all kinds of ways throughout her life. I think if Australia can't host somebody like that, it's troubling, it's very disappointing."


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