Challenging Islam The Odyssey of Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali is worshipped by foreign intellectuals, but not always welcome at home. Her opinions provoke Muslims as well as the European left, and she's been living in very public exile from the Netherlands for over a year.
"Tolerance of the intolerant," says Aayan Hirsi Ali, "is nothing but cowardice."
She smoothes the T-shirt, stretches and says: "It's a fantastic slogan, isn't it?"
Who can be surprised that this woman polarizes people? That some consider her a kind of Joan of Arc, while others see her as an incorrigible radical? As someone who says that she wants to help oppressed Muslim women, and yet may do them more damage than good? The daughter of a Somali opposition politician who fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage, Hirsi Ali is an expert at offending others. A rebellious spirit lurks beneath her graceful exterior and designer clothing.
Since the murder of Theo van Gogh, with whom she produced a film critical of male dominance in Muslim families three years ago, 38-year-old Hirsi Ali has been traveling the world without a place to call home. She now lives in the United States, but recently came to Europe to promote her autobiography, which has just come out in paperback in Germany.
And the threats are serious. Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent, shot van Gogh as he was riding a bike down an Amsterdam street in November 2004. In a note he pinned to his victim's chest with a knife, Bouyeri also threatened to kill Hirsi Ali. By then she already had bodyguards, paid for by the Dutch government. After Van Gogh's murder the protection was heightened, and three years later Dutch intelligence still considers the risk to her life to be very high.
But she moved to the United States in September 2006, and after a year abroad, was told by the Netherlands that government money for her protection would be canceled -- she would have to pay for it herself. The bodyguards who protected Hirsi Ali's life 24 hours a day, seven days a week, had already cost The Hague 2 million ($2.93 million).
This sum of 2 million was revealed in a debate in the Dutch parliament. "As far as I'm concerned, they have attached a price tag to my life," says Hirsi Ali. "Now the agents of Islam know how little the West is willing to pay for its freedom."
When she returned to the Netherlands in early October to appeal for an extension of her personal protection, she held back her criticism of the cabinet of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenendes. But now she speaks openly about her bitter feelings over the behavior of her fellow Dutchmen. If "anything goes wrong," says Hirsi Ali, the prime minister will be personally responsible. With "goes wrong," she's thinking, of course, of her own death.
A War on Two Fronts
When Hirsi Ali discusses the events of recent months, she starts with September 2002. She was working for a political foundation of the Dutch Social Democrats at the time. But she had already received death threats from Islamists living in the suburbs of Dutch cities. Friends, including writer Leon de Winter, collected money to bring her out of the line of fire -- to Los Angeles.
A short time later, the head of the liberal conservative party VVD, Gerrit Zalm, convinced her to return home and run for a seat in the Dutch parliament. "Only you have the moral authority to say the things that you say," Zalm told her, "we need immigrants in the immigration debate."
Zalm, who was deputy prime minister in the Balkenende cabinet at the time, promised that the government would provide for her security for as long as Hirsi Ali was considered in danger. "I entered into a life-and-death contract at the time," she says today, adding that she is now irritated by her own naiveté. "I studied politics and should have known what these sorts of agreements are worth."
Upon her return to the Netherlands, in 2002, Hirsi Ali's political career took off. She entered the parliament as a delegate for the liberal conservatives and lent her face to proponents of tougher policies on immigrants. In television debates she criticized Islamist family patriarchs, genital mutilation of young women and forced marriages -- all in her inimitable Jacobean fashion, which affords little tolerance to the opposition. By criticizing Islam for promoting these injustices in the name of Allah, Hirsi Ali launched a war on two fronts.
Her attacks drew criticism from Islamic fundamentalists as well as leftist Western intellectuals, who accused Hirsi Ali of discriminating against, offending and stirring up resentment among Muslims across the board. Her critics said her demands amounted to nothing less than a demand for Muslim immigrants to renounce their religion.
She's discovered, she now says, that even those who claim to be fighting outdated dogmas are quick to impose their restrictions on thought. From public life she's learned that minorities should not be rebuked; that there are also racists among non-whites; and that "tolerance of the intolerant is nothing but cowardice."
Hirsi Ali went on to write the screenplay for "Submission," an 11-minute film directed by Theo van Gogh. The film shows the naked body of a lightly veiled woman with Koran verses written on her skin. Muslims who saw the film on public television considered it an act of blasphemy. Non-Muslims in the Netherlands were also deeply critical of the film. Even after van Gogh's murder, author Geert Mak likened it to one of Joseph Goebbels' Nazi propaganda films. Hirsi Ali and her director, Mak wrote, had gone too far in their rant against Islam.
After "Submission", Hirsi Ali's protection was heightened. She slept in prison cells and was eventually flown to the United States in a military aircraft. Nevertheless, she says, she would do nothing different today.
'Why can't the Dutch stand Ayaan?'
Hirsi Ali admits her behavior could be seen as provocative. But, she adds, there was no doubt the Dutch had turned a blind eye to the horrors some of their Muslim neighbors were inflicting on their wives and daughters. "Teachers, the authorities, politicians and even the media looked the other way when girls didn't return to school after the summer vacation, because they had been married off in Morocco in the meantime." All the talk about respect for the identity of immigrants and their culture, Hirsi Ali says, is "nothing but thoughtlessness, laziness and fear of openly addressing human rights violations."
In the past year she's also become a divisive force within the Christian-Liberal coalition government. When former Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, a member of Hirsi Ali's party, revoked her citizenship for a short time in May 2006 because she had lied in the past on her application for asylum, the coalition government fell apart. Hirsi Ali left politics and a few months later went to Washington, where she took a position with a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. "That was a liberation for me," she says.
But she also burned her last bridges in the Netherlands. Many were incensed that she joined a group aligned with US President George W. Bush's foreign policy. She noticed the hostility during the parliamentary debate over her personal protection in October. Less than a dozen members of parliament voted in favor of her petition for an extension of her government protection. "Waarom heeft Nederland toch zo de pest aan Ayaan?" the weekly Elsevier asked. Translation: Why can't the Dutch stand Ayaan?
The parliament's decision didn't surprise Hirsi Ali. "I read an opinion poll in which 60 percent of the Dutch were opposed to paying for personal protection abroad," she says. By that point it was clear that Prime Minister Balkenende was no longer on her side in the debate.
She visited the Netherlands for a week in October, she says, and wasn't treated well. After meeting with the head of Dutch counterintelligence, she ran into her old rival Rita Verdonk in a hotel in The Hague. "Ayaan, they should pay for your bodyguards in America," Verdonk told her -- but then she voted against her petition in parliament.
But the more the Dutch reject what Elsevier calls their "ungrateful adopted child," the more Hirsi Ali's profile rises abroad. Since The Hague canceled her security, foreign intellectuals have celebrated her as a hero and martyr. Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie demanded "unlimited support for her" and said in an interview that she could very well be "the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust." A New York Times journalist has compared Hirsi Ali with Voltaire, the French philosopher of the Enlightenment who was never at a loss for courageous language.
Hirsi Ali has become a star of the world's debate podiums. Columnist and author Timothy Garton Ash once accused her of being a "Enlightenment fundamentalist" -- because she sought to impose what are in effect impossible conditions on the integration of Muslims in Europe, he said, and could easily hold her own with Muslim fundamentalists when it came to bigotry. The author recently distanced himself from the term, though, during a debate in London.
But Hirsi Ali is a tough customer. None of these accusations has degraded her self-confidence. As an adolescent she had already suffered every humiliation imaginable. Her mother beat her, and her grandmother condemned her to the painful ritual of female circumcision. The more she was oppressed, though, the stronger her will became to escape her environment. When her father planned to send her to Canada for an arranged marriage, she fled. She worked as a cleaning woman in the Netherlands, learned Dutch quickly and was soon attending political lectures. Influential people noticed her talents and took steps to ensure that the story of Hirsi Ali's integration would become one of the country's rare successes.
Now she wears silver evening dresses by Viktor & Rolf and chats with Condoleezza Rice. The US Secretary of State, she says, expressed her admiration for everything Hirsi Ali "has done for women and freedom." Rice even helped her obtain a green card, she says proudly. It is quite possible that money to pay for her bodyguards over the past few weeks has been paid by associates of the Bush administration.
Hirsi Ali has even started writing a book, which brings the Prophet Mohammed to present-day New York. He meets philosophers and economists in the New York Public Library -- Karl Popper, Friedrich August von Hayek and John Stuart Mill -- and a debate over Islam, democracy and human rights begins.
She wants to fight for Muslims to free themselves from the psychological stranglehold of a religion that treats all of its doctrines as absolute, says Hirsi Ali -- and its followers as slaves. "I was actually upset with Popper because he didn't take Islam to task."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan