Tasneem Chopra On Ayaan Hirsi Ali And The Debunked ‘Security Threat’

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Michael Brull sits down with a woman leading the charge against a woman leading the charge against Muslims.

The notorious Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently cancelled her planned tour of Australia. Her arrival was marked by controversy, as Muslims, particularly Muslim women, organised in advance to express their opposition to Hirsi Ali. Hundreds of Muslim women signed a petition criticising Hirsi Ali’s discourse as being “grounded in hate-mongering and bigotry”.

The petition did not call for her to be banned from Australia. It simply criticised Hirsi Ali for the things she has said. A story at SBS featured some of Hirsi Ali’s critics, including playwright Samah Sabawi, and prominent Melbourne feminist Hana Assafiri, who owns the excellent Moroccan Soup Bar.

Progressive anti-racist collective Persons of Interest produced a video featuring six Muslim women where they voiced criticisms of Hirsi Ali. I want to stress this: the video criticises things Hirsi Ali has said. There were no threats in it. No-one called for her to be banned from Australia.

Once her trip was cancelled, the media started claiming that this was because of security threats. No evidence has ever been produced for this claim. A story in the Australian claimed that Hirsi Ali “cancelled at the last minute citing concerns about security and the organisation of her trip”. Or later on, simply “Security concerns forced Hirsi Ali to pull out of her planned speaking tour”.

On April 3, Tom Tilley at ABC Radio discussed the information he received from police. He said police in Queensland and Victoria said they hadn’t received any direct threats in relation to her speaking engagements. Police in NSW refused to comment. If there was a threat assessment, it appears it didn’t come from police.

When Hirsi Ali spoke to ABC radio on April 4, she was asked about why she had cancelled her tour. Tilley noted that she has visited Australia five times before. Hirsi Ali said, “I had to because there was a succession of organisational lapses, on the part of the event organisers, Think Inc. And I’m very, very disappointed, that I’m not there, and I just really want to leave it at that, because we agreed Think Inc and I that that’s the only statement that we would make regarding this whole ordeal”.

So, it turns out, the claims of security threats – supposedly from the menacing Muslim hordes – is untrue. The reason she hasn’t showed up is some kind of squabble relating to Think Inc.

The result has been predictable smears of Muslims, who are supposedly making it unsafe to have free debate on important issues. For her part, Hirsi Ali has been characteristically irresponsible in her rhetoric. She responded to her critics in the video by saying, “Shame on you for carrying water for the Islamists, shame on you for trying to shut people up who are trying to raise awareness about sharia law.”

I find it hard to credit the claim that Australia has missed out by the cancellation of her tour. There are plenty of people in Australia who didn’t need their guru to visit to know how they feel about Muslims and Islam.

 

Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights

I spoke to one of the women featured in the video criticising Hirsi Ali. Her name is Tasneem Chopra. Tasneem is a cross-cultural consultant. She is also the Chairperson of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, and has been involved with it since its foundation in 1991.

Tasneem Chopra.
Tasneem Chopra.

I began by asking Tasneem about the work done by the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights. She said they work primarily

“in advocating for Muslim women’s issues regarding welfare… everything regarding discrimination, leadership advocacy, mainly domestic violence, it’s a really large component of what we do, and family violence, which also incorporates issues like forced marriages, migration, problems women that have regarding their visa status and partner’s, problems with divorce and things like that, so there’s that element. And then in the climate of Islamophobia there’s a whole lot of work we do in addressing women’s security and safety issues that concern their civil liberty. So, everything from civic education where we skill women up in awareness about how to access systems that govern them, right through to addressing their security concerns with authorities, advising them about the reality of Islamophobia affecting women on the ground.”

Tasneem said that the AMWCHR “operates from a very progressive, feminist framework.” She went on:

“it’s interesting, because people can’t understand how that coalesces with the Islamic thought, but it does, so, and having said that, while all of our clients are, identify as Muslim, we’re not a religious organisation per se. So it’s not about proselytising or, we don’t provide that aspect, it’s really welfare oriented, and ensuring that women’s welfare is our number one concern, physical, emotional and mental. “

 

She’s being lauded as an authority on Muslim across the world, and that’s incredibly flawed

Me: “So, some people would say that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an advocate for some of the things that the kind of work that you do. And yet, obviously you’ve been very critical of her. How would you describe the effect of the things that she says and writes in relation to the kind of advocacy that you do for Muslim women?”

Tasneem: “I think it’s not realistic to expect the lived experience of one person to then apply across an entire faith community. And particularly women in that community. It is not a homogenous group, the Muslims in Australia or indeed the world. And, my criticism of Ayaan’s message is that she has a lived experience, and a lived view of that, which she is entitled to, but she’s being lauded as an expert, and an authority therefore, on the experience of Muslims across the world, and that’s incredibly flawed. Her experience is hers, and while respect has to be given for what she has gone through in her journey to get where she’s at, I believe that her one experience, and her lived experience has been commodified to the hilt, to the extent where she is sought after, a leading pundit even, on representing the experiences of over half a billion people. Mathematically it’s not even viable, yet that’s what we’re seeing.”

Me: “Well, I’ve heard claims that many of the things that she’s claimed about her lived experiences, that she’s misrepresented it, and it caused a scandal in the Dutch parliament.”

“Yeah, I’ve read that as well. And my experience of that is only what I’ve read, I’ve not obviously had any personal experience of having spoken to anyone who can verify that, but my knowledge on that issue is probably the same as yours. I’ve just read articles that have confirmed a number of times that there were some credibility issues with the accounts that she had of different aspects of her life. And, notwithstanding the fact that she has misrepresented herself, I think to me, the greater issue is then, she still can’t use her true or you know, embellished experience to then represent everyone else’s. And that, to me, that’s the greater issue. It’s one thing to have license, but it’s another thing to be given a platform to celebrate and laud that license as if it were, for want of a better term, gospel, when it comes to defining this issue.”

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I said that given that Hirsi Ali supposedly speaks on behalf of Muslim women who are so oppressed, and given that you work as an advocate and whatever else for Muslim women who do have these human rights violations, who do face serious issues in their lives, do you find anything that she says helpful, or, a setback to the kind of work that you do?”

Tasneem replied that: “if you have one narrative of Islam, that’s been continuously portrayed as oppressive, then yes a counter-narrative is important to rectify that, if it comes from the Muslim community itself. I find her premise flawed, because a) she’s declared herself as an ex-Muslim, so she’s not working right now, today, as we speak, from within the parameters of someone who can identify within the Muslim community. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion, but to then repeatedly maintain that her view is valid because she’s been with the community and she knows the community, that’s a very easy position to take when you don’t have a counter-reference to what you’re saying.

We talk about a counter-narrative being needed from what she’s saying, as if it were the only voice on this issue. There are a countless number of progressive feminist Muslim women scholars, and scholarship on the issue of where Islam is at, whether its reformation, whether it’s progress, whether it’s Renaissance, or whatever, there is existing scholarship there from within the Muslim community. So, for someone who is speaking outside it, who does not have buy in from the very community that she speaks about, but is repeatedly given a platform from the non-Muslim majority, it just a very tedious exercise in having to constantly speak up as if our voices are continuously muted when she’s given a platform.

 

If you encourage hate, you are culpable

Me: Ok, so what do you think about Q&A inviting her back onto their program again?

“I think given the climate that we’re in, of escalated Islamophobia… and given the background of the comments that she has made, and knowing that based on statements that have been made by so-called influential persons which have led to vilification on the ground for communities, I think it was a bad move. We can actually draw a causal link between what is said and provoked, and physical acts of violence that are enacted against either Australian Muslims, British Muslims, American Muslims, I mean, you name it.

Whenever incitement is made, whenever provocations are made, it takes just one or two loose cannons in that crowd, in that listening audience, to then actually act on their anger, and be adequately provoked enough to commit harm and violence… Muslims are now easy prey, easy target[s]. When that kind of legitimacy for violence comes from the state, or comes from celebrities, which are lauded by the state – and we know that someone like Ayaan has been applauded or courted even by the likes of Pauline Hanson and the rational society – it just reinforces this, that the discourse of hate, and the discourse of racism, is welcome.

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There’s a human cost to this. No-one’s comfortable in addressing the fact that when you encourage hate, then you encourage fear and violence. There is a very direct link between that and actual acts of violence happening. And you are culpable, you are culpable whether you like it or not. If you actually invite it, you incite it, you endorse it, your name is on it.”

Tasneem went on to say that “the Australian Muslim community has actually extended itself to her to meet with her, on her terms, to discuss with her what she had to say. So not only did she refuse to engage with us, she’s refused to even make any commentary to the fact of that request that we made.”

I asked what Tasneem thought about that rejection:

“I think it’s very telling. It speaks to what her real intentions are. If she’s claiming to repeatedly represent and speak to the realities of Muslim women across the world, and if Muslim women from across the world want to sit down with her and talk to her about their realities, and her response is “no, I don’t want to”, it means she’s really coming from a position of a) “I only speak when I’m paid”, and b) “I only speak when I control the agenda”. And “I’ll speak at you and not with you”.

So, then I mean, you have to ask yourself, really, are her intentions really coming from an authentic point of wanting to progress the conversation, or to line her coffers?”

 

If people of colour maintain that same critique, it becomes a security concern

Tasneem also talked about the supposed security concerns behind Hirsi Ali’s cancellation. Those claims have since been debunked, making some of Tasneem’s remarks more pointed:

“Whenever the mainstream complain, or want to criticise a speaker who comes, we call it free speech. But if people of colour maintain that same critique, and question, it becomes a security concern. So we almost colour code people’s responses and reactions according to the political climate that we live in. That goes to divisive rhetoric, and it goes to othering, and it goes to saying that unless you’re toeing the line you can’t be part of mainstream.”

I concluded by asking what people could do if they want to support the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human rights. She said people can visit their website.

“[We’re] a registered not for profit organisation, and we welcome donations and support. You can certainly visit our website. We have numerous publications that have been produced by the centre on a variety of issues, which can be downloaded as well. So it’s a great reference point to source information that is about the community here. And again, just to know that if you’re looking information that’s really from a perspective of a progressive feminist framework of thinking, then that’s the kind of work that we engage with.”

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Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).

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