Reporter: Mark Colvin

MARK COLVIN: The word "apostate" has fallen into relative disuse in the West in the last couple of 100 years.

The idea that leaving your religion, apostasy, should be punished, has largely died out since the Enlightenment.

But Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who's been in Australia over the last few days, is in continuous fear for her life because she is an apostate from Islam.

In 2004, in the Netherlands, her friend, the filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was stabbed to death for an anti-Islam film for which she wrote the script. A death threat against her was pinned to the corpse with a knife.

In her subsequent book, Infidel, she stepped up her attack on global Islam. And in Australia she's been talking about the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the creed of Islam itself, rather than the way it's practised, is the problem, because the ideas of Mohammed are incompatible with the ideas of liberal democracy.

(To Ayaan Hirsi Ali) Is Islam the problem or is fundamentalist Islam the problem?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Islam, as a creed, is the problem, depending on how you define the problem and I define it as the ideas of Mohammed are incompatible with the ideas that liberal secular democracies are based on.

And I also want to emphasise that it's not Muslims as in individuals, because they're varied, they're very diverse. Some Muslims are a problem, some Muslims are not, some Muslims are apathetic, but Islam as a system of ideas is incompatible with liberal democracy as a system of ideas.

MARK COLVIN: And yet here in Australia we live next to an enormous, mainly Islamic country, which is slowly moving towards democracy which would seem to indicate that Islam itself is not necessarily a complete barrier to doing that.

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Islam is a barrier to doing that, but your next door neighbour, which is the world's probably largest Muslim country, started out after the decolonisation process as a secular democratic country, and right now we see two trends.

We see Indonesians who are evolving in their understanding and practice of democracy, but we also see Indonesians who are affected by the Middle East, and especially by the Islamic Radical Movement and who are choosing to introduce Sharia, or parts of Sharia, into Indonesia, and I think it's that trend that Australia should not ignore. And it's that trend that Indonesia itself should not ignore.

MARK COLVIN: If you go back to say, the 17th century in Europe, Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, was essentially fundamentalist. And if you looked at the religion then of Christianity, you would have said, "This is a fundamentalist religion which can never evolve democratic states." Why is Islam different?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Well, first of all, it's not Christianity that produced the Enlightenment and all of that, there were perhaps Christians, but also individuals in Europe, in the United States and elsewhere, who proposed ideas to move away from religion and furnishing their lives and society by means of religious ideas and moved on secular ideas.

Why is Islam different from Christianity? I think one main difference is the separation of divine rule from secular rule. Islam does not allow it and I have not yet see a Muslim movement saying we should now move away or separate the two.

MARK COLVIN: But the point I'm making, I suppose, is that there was a time when Christianity didn't allow it either. Is Islam permanently incapable of reformation or change in that way?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: It's very important to make a distinction between Islam as a set of ideals, Christianity as a set of ideas and so on. And human beings, individuals, Muslims, are capable of change. They're capable of forming their religion, they're capable of thinking differently about different things.

Islam as creed as incapable of change in the sense that … for instance there's a read-only lock on the Koran. Anyone who proposes to change anything in the Koran is considered an apostate, and is immediately killed or threatened with death.

Muslims hold that the Prophet Mohammed is infallible. In fact, it's a claim he did not make, but that is accorded to him. So that Muslims must in the 21st century, emulate the example of the Prophet Mohammed. And I think Islam will change, will be reformed, if a fair amount of Muslims abandon those dogmas.

MARK COLVIN: The Enlightenment, which you're here to talk about, only really came about after a very long period, a couple of 100 years, of extreme violence between Christian sects, notably the 30 years war, and the Peasant Wars, and so forth.

Is it necessary for Islam to have to go through that kind of thing, or is there a short cut?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Well, that depends on the people. If you have, as we have right now, people who want to practice Islam in its most pure form, and impose it on not just Muslims, but everyone else, then you're going to see a resistance both from within Islam and outside of Islam.

And that resistance, if that doesn't lead to a dialogue, a peaceful dialogue with a peaceful outcome, will lead to bloodshed. And if you look, if you listen to the rhetoric of al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, these are people who say we can't compromise unless everyone becomes a Muslim. Now, everyone is not going to become a Muslim, and so then you set the stage for violence, and that violence is then caused by the zealots, by the puritans.

If freedom of expression is limited as it is in Muslim countries, and as large numbers of minorities in Western societies are demanding, then that means the free exchange of ideas. And the stages for that diminish and people get frustrated and that could lead to violence.

MARK COLVIN: When you say, "Large numbers of people in Western societies are demanding", what are you referring to?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Everyone followed the cartoon crisis, or the crisis about the cartoon drawings of Mohammed in Denmark. That led to an explosion of violence because large groups of Muslims still will not accept criticism of their religion.

Over and over again, when in the name of Islam, human blood is shed, Muslims are very quiet. When drawings are made or some perceived slight or offences given by writing a book, or making a drawing, or in some way criticising the dogmas of Islam, people take to the streets. We have all these leaders of the organisation of Islam, the countries who oppressed on people, coming to demand the people apologise.

And I think it's this discrepancy that more and more people see as violence and intolerance and the lack of freedom inherent in the creed of Islam.

MARK COLVIN: Finally, a personal question. You've paid an enormous price in terms of your own personal security for saying what you say. What makes it worth it?

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Freedom and a vision that it is so much more important, so much better to live in freedom than to be overtaken by a wave of fanatics who in the name of Islam wants to impose their world view on us.

And I think the best thing to do is to resist and to take away from them, the monopoly that they now have on the hearts and minds of Muslims.

MARK COLVIN: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who's been in Australia talking about the ideas of the Enlightenment as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies.


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