As the Prime Minister’s national briefings on terrorism warn us to be alert and, when you think about it, actually pretty bloody alarmed, The Daily Telegraph reported that “firebrand radical convert” Yvonne Ridley was set to headline a conference run by an “Islamic group linked to extremists”.

Ridley is one of the international speakers who are scheduled to speak at the 2014 “Crossroads” conference, held by Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah.

Last night I was invited to join Ridley as she addressed a class of women and girls at an Islamic youth centre in Roxburgh Park. A talented speaker, she drew gasps and laughter with her well-polished account of her post-9/11 adventures in Afghanistan and subsequent conversion to Islam, all told in a warm, earthy northern English style.

As a journalist for the Sunday Express, Ridley had crossed the border from Pakistan under the cover of a burqa (“like the invisibility cloak from Harry Potter”), only to be arrested during her departure when her donkey bolted and her camera tumbled out from beneath the invisibility cloak. According to Ridley, her first thought on being detained by a young Taliban member was: “My goodness, you are gorgeous!” The most amazing green eyes, like the girl in that famous National Geographic story — and the cheekbones …

Ridley spent the next 10 days being detained by “the regime which George and Tony had told us was the most brutal regime in the world” — which Ridley assured her spellbound audience was no such thing. After she went on a hunger strike to demand access to a phone, their cook begged her with tears in his eyes to eat the stew he had carefully prepared for her. She was so well treated, in fact, that on being released at the border with Pakistan, she wanted to turn back to apologise for her own rude and obnoxious behaviour. She has since worked for a range of Islamic media outlets and become an in-demand speaker at Muslim events around the globe.

Over coffee after the class, Ridley had some pungent remarks about current Australian political discourse, and in particular Jacqui Lambie’s call to ban the burqa.

“I don’t often criticise women, but she epitomises the term ‘daft bint’. She’s either incredibly ignorant or politically stupid, and I’m not sure which. What I would suggest to her is stop digging and apologise, pet, and do it quickly.”

Ridley claims that she has never yet met a niqabi who’s been forced to wear the veil. “And if there are men out there who force their wives to wear the niqab in public, then by banning it they’ve confined them to the house. If these women exist, then the niqab gave them the freedom to get out of the house.”

She also speculates the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy banned the face-veil as a way of dealing with the modelling career of his wife, Carla Bruni.

“Any schoolboy, anyone in the world who wants to see what Sarkozy’s wife looks like without her clothes on, can just go on the internet and look at her from any angle. And I think that this psychologically damaged Sarkozy and that’s why he banned the niqab. In his own mind, people were judging him, saying, ‘yeah, we can see your wife, but there’s no way that you’re going to see mine’. So ripping of the niqab was just a little way of dealing with that.”

Ridley also says that the French and Italian burqa bans have proved an economic godsend to Britain, with London replacing Paris and Milan as the favoured shopping destination for wealthy Arab women. “These women, they see a handbag for 4000 pounds and they’ll buy 10, one in every colour. It’s not because Britain’s a more humanitarian place to live, it’s because they’ve got capitalism down to a fine art. And that’s why they’ll never ban the niqab.” The short-sighted French, on the other hand, “have destroyed one of their most lucrative shopping avenues just by banning the niqab”.

Ridley’s address provided her audience with an unexpectedly light note during what has been an extremely difficult week for Muslims living in Australia. I will be tuning in to her further escapades Down Under and around the world  — as well as their tabloid coverage …

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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