The Van Gogh Murder Out of Hiding

In November, a radical Muslim shot and killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. But the killer's actual target was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali immigrant who moved her way out of the working class and into parliament, while championing the cause of Holland's Muslim women. The uncompromising reform-minded ex-Muslim refuses to be intimidated or to cease with her razor sharp tongue lashings of Islam.
Von Erich Wiedemann

"It's good to have you back." Those were the words Dutch parliament president Frans Weisglas chose to greet Member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Tuesday as she stepped out of her armored Mercedes at the main entrance to the parliament building in The Hague. It had, after all, been awhile. Since the beginning of November -- immediately following the bestial murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh -- she has been in hiding. Her life, promised a note impaled in the breast of the dead van Gogh, was in grave danger.

"It's good to be back," 37-year-old parliamentarian responded to Weisglas's greeting with a smile. It is unlikely, though, that the danger to her life has passed.

Hirsi Ali fled on Nov. 10, flying to the United States on a military aircraft, just eight days after the highly publicized Nov. 2 murder of van Gogh -- a distant relative of the famous painter -- on the streets of Amsterdam. The precaution proved justified. On the day of her flight, police in The Hague arrested two members of an Islamic group and found papers documenting an apparent assassination plot against Hirsi Ali, a member of the Netherlands' conservative Liberal Party (VVD). She was to be killed on New Year's Day.

The discovery of the plot wasn't particularly surprising to anyone familiar with the police investigations into van Gogh's alleged murderer Mohamed Bouyeri. The more they know, the more police suspect that it was Hirsi Ali and not the filmmaker who was the Islamic radical's main target. Van Gogh did, of course, film the television documentary "Submission," in which naked women appear with Quran verses painted on their bodies to represent the oppression of Muslim women. But it was Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim, who wrote the script. Van Gogh, however, was easier to get to; despite repeated warnings, he eschewed all security measures. Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, is protected by bodyguards 24 hours a day.

The four-page long letter van Gogh's killer skewered to his chest was, in fact, addressed to Hirsi Ali. "Beware madame," it stated, "as a soldier of evil, you are doing the work of the enemies of Islam." The letter said she would be wishing for death when her punishment is meted out. It didn't even mention van Gogh.

Hirsi Ali has never disputed the fact that she enjoys her role as a polemicist. And it's unlikely the threats against her life will slow her critique of Islam. She loves the furor and anything less would be, in her mind at least, a half-hearted commitment. Nor are her arguments baseless -- the woman knows what she's talking about.

Championing Holland's Muslim women

As a young girl in Mogadishu, Somalia, she was subjected to the violent practice of female circumcision. At 18, her Koran teacher beat her so badly she suffered a broken skull. Then, in 1992, her father married her off to a cousin in Canada she had never even met. At the time she was in Berlin, and instead of catching her flight to Canada, she took a train to Amsterdam: the destination, a new life. There she applied for asylum, renounced her Islamic beliefs and eked out a living as a cleaning lady and social worker.

Through her work at women's shelters, she came into close contact with the adversity faced by Muslim women across the Netherlands and she started investigating the consequences of sexual abuse in Muslim families. "It happens regularly -- the incest, the beatings, the abortions," she says. "Girls commit suicide. But no one says anything. And social workers are sworn to professional secrecy." She also claims that 60 percent of the women who get abortions in Holland are Muslim.

Hirsi Ali made championing the cause of Muslim women her career and eventually got elected to parliament. When the ambassador of Saudi Arabia called for her to be removed from office because of her polemics against Islam, she just scored even more points with Dutch voters. In a survey of the most-popular Dutch people in 2003, she landed in second place.

But the country's political elite regard Hirsi Ali less fondly. She has divisively described the Netherlands's multicultural ideal as a "naïve illusion." And she's lumped radical Islam together with the mainstream Muslim religion and described them both as "dangerous." With views that strong, there's little room left for the kind of political compromise that is the soul of Holland's consensus-based democracy.

But it is within the Islamic community where she has made her most bitter enemies and she has been seen as a sort of raving reformist for years now. "She's sick in the head," says an outraged Hassan al-Barrakat, who heads a group of Somali Muslims in Holland. No group, he says, is willing to deal with her.

Yet despite political pressure from the Muslim community and within her own party, Hirsi Ali is unlikely to back off from her Islam-critical activism. Her wildest rants, in which she calls the prophet Muhammad a perverse tyrant or describes the Muslim religion as a cultural backwater, even make her own Liberal Party leaders flinch. The party's boss, Jozias van Aartsen, has called for moderation and he's warned that her anti-Islam slogans are at odds with the party's own positions. He's cautioned that the party's "tolerance should not be replaced with Islamophobia."

But Hirsi Ali's response is hardly reassuring. Why, she asks, should she temper herself? Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, she points out, is very moderate in his criticism of Islam. Yet he's still on the Islamists' death list. If you're going to oppose something, she seems to think, you have to do it strongly.

On Tuesday Hirsi Ali announced she's now working on the script for "Submission II." The move ensures that it will be a long time before the file on Hirsi Ali is closed -- the police file will remain open and so will the death file her Islamic would-be assassins have compiled on her.