Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Capitol Theatre

Last night, Other Half and I attended a Q&A style talk by ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali with Jennifer Byrne.

I can’t talk about the event without first mentioning the poor organisation from the Wheeler Centre, Capitol Theatre or whoever was responsible for the hour-long delay and queue that extended 100 metres down Swanston Street. Ticket holders were asked by email to arrive early (7:00 for a 7:30 start), as seating was unreserved and the event sold out. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has spoken out against Islam for many years now, and she’s also written a film about the oppression of Muslim women, of which the director was murdered. As a result of this and other death threats she’s received, she has a significant security detail and obviously poses security challenges for those organising events which she attends. However, she travels the world giving talks like these and promoting her books and the organisers of this event should have been fully aware and prepared for the implications of this. Saying that security is being finalised to hundreds of paying customers who have been standing in line for over an hour is not a satisfactory excuse in my mind.

Is it completely inappropriate to complain about having to wait in line fully clothed, having already eaten 2 full meals that day, in the affluent western country where I was born and given a secular education, for a talk about highlighting the injustices, oppression and abuses suffered by hundreds of millions of Muslim women each day? Maybe.

Moving on.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a wonderful speaker, and whilst I wouldn’t call her engaging as such, there is something eminently captivating about listening to her. If she were only telling the story about her life, growing up in Central Eastern Africa in a time of civil war and political upheaval, fleeing her ‘clan’ and religion as a young woman refusing to enter an arranged marriage, seeking asylum in The Netherlands and even becoming a member of parliament in that country, she would still have a fascinating story to tell. That she also feels compelled to raise the profile of the horrors of Islam, seriously endangering her own life by doing so, is all the more remarkable.

There were murmurs of disagreement when Hirsi Ali voiced her opinion that Christians should be trying much harder to convert or recruit young people in countries where Islam has taken hold. This idea obviously did not sit well with the mostly secular audience but I found it intriguing and feel inclined to agree with her. It is easy for us, as affluent, white, western atheists to say that people should not hold any irrational beliefs whatsoever, but when holding an irrational belief is something that somebody relies on to just make it through the day – there are certainly some beliefs that are far more harmful than others.

Given that the talk had been delayed, the way that question time unfolded was incredibly frustrating for those audience members who had not already left. Inevitably at these types of events, those who get up to ask questions have their own agenda,  often something that they want to promote, or just love the attention and sound of their own voice. I suggest in future for ALL events like this one, that people must submit their questions in writing, before or during the talk, in order for them to be vetted prior to being asked. While question time has the potential to be interesting and prompt further stimulating discussion, it too often gets hijacked and becomes pointless. And that reminds me, Jennifer Byrne’s concluding query was incredibly inappropriate, she should be embarrassed – the audience certainly was.

If you’re interested in Ayaan Hirsi Alis other Australian appearances, John Safran and Father Bob recorded and interview for Sunday Night Safran on Triple J which will be aired soon. She also appeared on ABCs Lateline, Radio National’s Life is Beautiful and ABC Canberra 666 AM.