Australian Federal Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke has railed about the Government decision to issue a visa to British journalist Yvonne Ridley. Burke called Ridley an “apologist for violence” and said Ridley praised the masterminds of the Beslan school massacre and the Moscow Theatre hostage crisis as well as describing suicide bombings as "martyrdom operations".
Burke said the Government should kick Ridley out of the country if necessary. Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews disagreed saying there was nothing to suggest she was a security risk. "There is a vast distinction between allowing somebody into Australia whose views you may not like, and somebody who is a threat to national security,” he said.
Ridley was invited to Australia for the First Annual Australian Islamic Conference. The conference was held at Melbourne University on three days over the Easter weekend. The conference was staged by non-profit Muslim group Mercy Mission. Ridley led two workshops in the conference “Towards an effective strategy in tackling Islamophobia in the media” and "Dressing under duress – the challenge of wearing the hijab in times of apprehension” (which was women only). Ridley also gave two lectures entitled “Beyond stereotyping and misinformation...a positive vision for media contribution to the contemporary debate about values”, and “Feminism...Islam...what is the true path to restoring the honour of Muslim women?".
While Ridley was allowed in to Australia, the government did impose a ban on Canadian cleric Sheikh Bilal Philips who was also invited to speak at the conference. His visa application was refused on security grounds. Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said Philips had a long history of support for extremist Islamic positions. The US government named Philips as an unindicted conspirator to the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. Supporters of Philips said this was American McCarthyism and “guilt by association.” Chaaban Omran, the president of the Federation of Australian Muslim Students, said the sheikh did not promote terrorism and the ban on him was unjustified.
Conference organisers also strongly denied suggestions it was staged over Easter to insult Christians. "We certainly meant no insensitivity," organiser Adel Salman said. "We weren't making any particular statement or any religious statement. It was purely a convenient time to schedule the conference."
Ridley was the conference's star attraction. She is the political editor for Islam Channel and writes a weekly newspaper column for the New York-based Muslims Weekly. She first came to international prominence in the weeks after 9/11. Then an agnostic Sunday Express reporter, Ridley secretly crossed from Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan to cover the impending conflict. She fell off her donkey in front of a Taliban soldier near Jalalabad, revealing a banned camera underneath her robes and was arrested for travelling without a visa. Ridley was held for in a Kabul jail where her appeals for a phone call were repeatedly denied. She went on hunger strike and The Taliban released her after 11 days and handed her over to Pakistani authorities. Her release came as British and American forces began their missile attacks on Afghan targets.
Ridley promised her captors she would study the Koran after her release. She became quickly entranced by what she read. “I was absolutely blown away by what I was reading - not one dot or squiggle had been changed in 1,400 years” she said. In 2003 Ridley converted to Islam. "I have joined what I consider to be the biggest and best family in the world. When we stick together we are absolutely invincible,” she told reporters, "and my mother is delighted I've stopped drinking."
Ridley’s conversion may have been an example of Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages take the side of the kidnappers but she strongly denies the accusation. Ridley is now a roving ambassador for Muslim causes. She delivered lectures on issues relating to Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and Uzbekistan, Women in Islam, the War on Terror and journalism at major universities in the US, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East. She now discourages British Muslims from co-operating with anti-terrorism police and refers to suicide bombings as "martyrdom operations".
In 2003, Ridley joined Al Jazeera as a senior editor. She didn’t last long. Al Jazeera sacked her for what they called her "overly-vocal and argumentative style". Ridley's supporters said her vocal criticisms of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been the more likely cause. She eventually won a case for unfair dismissal.
In 2004 Ridley ran in the European parliament for the Respect Party. She attracted 13 per cent of the vote but was not elected. She also ran unsuccessfully for the House of Commons and local government. Ridley is a friend and supporter of jailed terrorist leader Abu Hamza Al Masri. In 2003, he called her to offer his congratulations on her conversion to Islam. Al Masri is the former imam of Finsbury Park mosque who was jailed for seven years in 2004 for encouraging others at public meetings to kill non-believers, especially Jews. Ridley described Al Masri as “quite sweet really”.
While in Australia, Yvonne Ridley strongly defended herself from Tony Burke’s attacks. She said she had been misquoted and misrepresented. Ridley said she believed in justice for Palestinians and Chechnyans and denied she supported suicide bombing. She told the ABC “these views have been taken out of context and have been dredged up by mischief-makers who have an Islamaphobic agenda”.