Sunday, December 05, 2004
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali Dutch Law Maker
On a jihad against the faith she cast off
Kathy BrewisDecember 04, 2004
ON the surface, everything is calm. In the courtyard of the Dutch parliament in The Hague, a petite MP is talking to a reporter. A cameraman hovers with a microphone; a few curious tourists look on, some recognising Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She bids the news team goodbye and glances across at a tall, unsmiling man in dark trousers and a tweed jacket. Then, looking sheepish, sheheads for the door of the adjacent building.The man's eyes dart warily around thecourtyard, then he follows her in. He is one of her bodyguards.
It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to hurt this small and unobtrusive woman. Perhaps she can't fully imagine it herself. Certainly, at this point, she is not fazed by the possibility.
"I'm very bad - I am not supposed to go out on my own," she confides. "I thought I could just sneak out, but they came anyway."
It's ironic that a woman who campaigns to free oppressed Muslim women should find her own freedom curtailed. But Hirsi Ali has openly criticised Islam, and the danger to anyone whodares to do this is all too real. This becomes horribly evident five days later, on November 2,when film director Theo van Gogh is murdered in Amsterdam.
Hirsi Ali collaborated with van Gogh on Submission, a short film showing a Muslim girl's suffering, broadcast on Dutch television on August 29. Its makers received death threats from Muslim extremists, but van Gogh, who was fond of making obscene remarks about all religions, did not take them seriously and turned down police protection.
Pinned to his body with a knife was a letter containing a direct warning to Hirsi Ali, signed by an unknown group. Her protectors have spirited her away into hiding. Whether or when she will re-emerge remains to be seen.
She is Holland's most controversial politician since Pim Fortuyn - the flamboyantly gay, anti-immigration MP murdered by a left-wing extremist in May 2002. She is reviled by Islamic fundamentalists. Her message - that Islam needs to modernise - is offensive to many. But the messenger has a very soft voice.
She is relieved when I sit near her, so she won't have to speak up, on our first meeting, at the Dutch embassy in London in September. The 35-year-old has the air of a school captain about to make her first public speech. She is dressed in an elegant grey trouser suit, with patterned tights leading to pointed black shoes. She does not have a politician's hardened bravado. She does, however, give good sound bite.
In the past she has agreed with Fortuyn that Islam is a backward religion and described the Prophet Mohammed as a pervert. Not a good way of winning friends among militant Muslims, but a sure means of getting in the newspapers. Even some in her own party, the VVD (Peoples Party for Freedom and Democracy, which holds 28 of the 150 seats in parliament), regard her as a bit of a media whore.
She shows me that night's dinner agenda (discussions on the European constitution, and so on), admitting she has no idea who many of her British counterparts are. She has only been in politics for two years: after a stint as a researcher for the Dutch Labour Party, she became a VVD parliamentary assistant in November 2002 and an MP in January 2003.
Her manner is disarming. It seems bizarre that she could have incurred the wrath of the fanatics. Until she starts telling you about Islam, and you realise that here is a woman without a shred of political correctness, who is unwilling to spare anybody's feelings if there's a point to be made.
She insists she is still a Muslim, albeit lapsed; she is a part of Muslim culture but no longer believes in God (which is punishable by death, according to Mohammed teachings) and thinks those who take everything in the Koran literally have a lot to answer for.
She raises hackles because she attacks core beliefs. The trouble started, she explains, when she gave an interview last year to the Dutch newspaper Trouw.
"I did say some good things about Mohammed, but I also said he legalised the tribal system where the woman is a baby machine; he had nine wives, and one of them was a nine-year-old. I said he is a perverted tyrant. In the Netherlands, that is called pedophilia and you would be brought to justice."
Her comments were instantly picked up by other media. About 600 Muslims made an official complaint to the police, seeking to put her in jail. Four ambassadors, from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan and Malaysia, visited her party chairman and asked him to make Hirsi Ali resign, as she had offended their human rights.
Non-Muslims were shocked by the clamour. "They were like, if you're causing Muslims this much headache, aren't you being ineffective? You'll drive them away from enlightenment if you approach them in this way."
Thanks to the internet, news of this apostate spreads fast. Earlier this year, a man threatened her in a trendy cafe, just opposite the Dutch parliament, saying he hoped the mujaheddin would kill her.
Reportedly, she answered spiritedly: "If you want to kill me, you'll have to do it yourself!" The man replied, "I'd like to, but I'm afraid I'll end up in prison."
Hirsi Ali's bodyguards were out of earshot and were angry when she told them what had happened only after her would-be assailant had left. But that's typical of her - she would rather fight her own battles.
"There's this man now who's serving nine months in jail," she says. "He put my address on the internet and called everyone saying, 'She should be killed.'
"They put 22 detectives on the case and now they have him. They're not quite sure if he's alone or if he's part of a group."
She was forced to move house. "That's the most traumatic thing that's happened to me. I had bought a house, and then I had to give it up. It makes me angry - why are my opponents not talking? Instead, they intimidate and threaten."
The pressure must be immense. "Yes, but it's my work and the pace of work here is so fast that there's no time to get depressed and feel bad. All the prominent members of parliament are always busy. But they don't all have bodyguards."
She sighs, in weariness rather than self-pity. "They are with me 24 hours a day and it is annoying. Inside my house I have privacy, but they can see who is coming around."
So she feels safe? She looks me straight in the eye. "Yes. After two years, I can say it's been worth it. There are things in life where it's really important to say, 'I'm going to take a stand.' But there are limits to what you can do as one individual. This is not something I can keep up for ever. I am not a martyr. I have no wish to sacrifice myself."
Though they argue over ideology, Hirsi Ali and her father are very alike. Were it not for him, she would never have ended up in The Hague. As it was, she grew up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, speaks six languages and is an independent career woman. But as a teenager she was rarely allowed to go out. "As a girl growing up, I was more sheltered from outside influences than most women in Europe."
Some critics have accused her of being blinkered by the trauma of her personal experiences - for example, she underwent genital mutilation when she was six. But she says she does not dwellon the negatives - and that was one of many negatives.
"Being forbidden to read what I wanted, being forbidden to go out, being forbidden to be friends with non-Muslims. I have forgotten the pain and being angry with my mother about it, but I remember the lesson.
"I've lost so many years."
She was born in Somalia in November 1969, a month after Mohammed Siad Barre seized power in a military coup, putting paid to the country's heady dream of democracy.
Her father was one of many democratically minded politicians imprisoned by Siad Barre; his wife fled with the children to Saudi Arabia. Her father escaped and joined them there, but got an ultimatum from the Saudi government: "Keep away from Somali politics, because it's a friendly nation, or we'll kick you out" - so we went to Ethiopia. "Then Somalia and Ethiopia were at war, so we moved to Kenya," Hirsi Ali recalls.
"I was lucky enough to be educated there - itwas an ex-British colony and I could learnEnglish."
Eleven years later, she and her sister moved back to Somalia, but then a clan war started, so the girls moved to Kenya again. Finally, in 1992, when Hirsi Ali was 22, a distant relative in his late 20s came over from Canada, looking for a bride.
"He thought Canadian Somali girls were too assertive, too modern: he was looking for someone who was obedient. My father offered me to him. He said, 'Listen, you're way beyond the age that you're meant to have got married. We've got a civil war on, so there are fewer suitors, and this is an opportunity for your future, to be safe."'
She was to go to Canada via Germany while her husband-to-be sorted out the paperwork. In Dusseldorf, she stayed briefly with family friends, then caught a train to Amsterdam and applied for asylum. This was granted in just three weeks: Somalia was in the news and Somalian refugees were being fast-tracked. "I was extremely lucky. It's not the case now."
In addition to the Somali, Arabic, Amharic, English and Swahili that she already spoke, she now set about learning Dutch, paying her own way (her CV lists various activities, from cleaning to sorting the post) and eventually studied political science at Leiden University.
"It was difficult to adjust, but it was a challenge. I had nothing to lose. I didn't want to go to Canada. I couldn't go back to Somalia, because I had dishonoured my father, his name and the whole family. I didn't want to commit suicide - I'm not the depressive type. So it was like, well, I'll have to make something out of my life now I'm here."
She says her mother's strength of character inspired her. "She is 100 times braver, more determined. She always remained sane under such turbulent experiences. Perhaps also the nomadic genetic make-up helps: going completely down or shooting up, there's nothing in between. So I shot up."
Her father, who now lives in London, inadvertently sowed the seed for Hirsi Ali's future. "There were two examples: my mother's life and my father's, and my father's was more exciting. He was always going out, he did important things, he gave his life for the country. My mother was always toiling away - cooking, cleaning, taking care of us, taken for granted. I was seven or eight when I decided, 'I don't want a life like this.'
"I wanted to repeat my father's life. But I wouldn't do it in exactly the same way, because often he wasn't there and we were angry about that - we felt he deserted my mother."
She and her father have reached one of several uneasy truces. "He says it's not God's wish for women to be abused. But I say, if God is so wise, why was he so ambiguous that the majority of Muslim men are abusing their women and justifying it by saying, 'That's what God says'? "One day, according to my father, I will grow up and see the light. That's when he's not angry. When he's angry he says, 'You have to be careful you don't incur the wrath of God. God can punish you.'
"Then I think, OK, my father is from a different generation. This gap between how he thinks and how I think, that's not going to disappear."
Hirsi Ali's office in the Dutch parliament - where, since Fortuyn's murder, all the windows have bulletproof glass - is a small, bland room with few personal touches. On the desk stands a computer, on which she has spent the morning writing a 2000-word piece for the newspaper De Volkskrant about the responses to what she calls her little film, Submission.
A filing cabinet contains the letters and emails, divided into three groups: disapproving, neutral, approving. The neutral pile is minimal. "There are people who support me and people who are against me - nothing in between." A practising Muslim woman from the US stated her concern: "I humbly believe your advocacy could do more good for Muslims if your approach was not so offensive to the religion itself. I do hope that you do not unintentionally help fuel racist prejudices and hatred."
"It's very risky," Hirsi Ali admits. "But if you take an attitude of self-censorship, because the racists will run away with your ideas and the hardliners will intimidate, then you get paralysed mentally. There is a huge group of women in Europe, in the US, all over the Western world, who are Muslims who are oppressed, mentally and physically.
"There are large groups of women in Saudi Arabia and Iran who aren't even allowed to go outside."
But after van Gogh's death she admitted to the Dutch media: "I feel terribly guilty." The film depicts a Muslim girl standing on a prayer mat, telling God that she wants to be obedient to him but she is suffering terribly and doesn't know if she can submit to his will any longer. "Which is human. And which, for Muslims, is new - we are not used to challenging our God. The relationship between the Muslim and his God is one of submission. The Christians and Jews have experimented with this, to their good fortune.
It's good to question your God, to say, 'Why have you done this?"'
In the 11-minute film, the girl's veil is transparent at the front, so you see her breasts and stomach. In flashbacks where she is beaten, verses from the Koran telling husbands to beat their wives are painted on her body.
She tells how her husband, from whom she recoils, rapes her and quotes the Koran to justify his actions; how she has been punished for falling in love with someone else - she quotes a scripture that says adulterers should be flogged with no compassion; how her uncle rapes her and her father tells her not to question his brother's honour.
Hirsi Ali's depiction of oppressed Muslim women may appear simplistic - after all, there are plenty of modern Muslim women who balance their faith with a Western lifestyle, and many Muslim men who cherish their wives.
Conversely, domestic violence is by no means confined to the Muslim world, and other religions such as Judaism and Christianity have historically been just as patriarchal. But her point is that other traditions have mostly moved with the times.
"The film wasn't meant to provoke, in a negative sense - it was meant to stimulate," she insists. "My parents brought me up with the notion that Islam is a very beautiful religion.
But it has some very ugly birthmarks, which are blind spots for Muslims, and one of these is the treatment of women. I made the veil translucent so you see that behind it is a normal human being, with skin, with hands."
She says that well-meaning multiculturalists have allowed abuses against Muslim women to go unchallenged for too long.
"Society should not just look away and say, 'It's their culture,' when they're forced to wear the veil, or marry at puberty, so cannot finish their schooling.
"These girls are silent: they can't defend themselves. When it comes to choosing between hurting people's feelings and defending the rights of these girls, I am convinced that defending the rights of these girls is more important."
At what point did she turn her back on Islam? "I never turned my back towards Islam. But I'm one of the people who, on September 11, felt it was important to say, 'I don't want this kind of Islam.'
"A lot of Muslims tell me, 'You have let us down.' But I say to them, 'You have let me down by keeping silent.'
"Behind closed doors they say that [Osama] bin Laden and the fundamentalism is nuts, and they appreciate what they have in the West. But they simply don't dare come out and say it for fear of offending Allah."
A few other Muslim women are, like Hirsi Ali, challenging the status quo: Chahdortt Djavann, in France, author of Bas les Voiles! (Down with the Veils!); Irshad Manji, in Canada, who wrote The Trouble with Islam; and men - Salman Rushdie, of course, and, nominated for this year's Booker prize, the British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam, whose novel Maps for Lost Lovers pulls no punches in its treatment of honour killings and brutalised Muslim women.
And she has a handful of Muslim supporters at home. One Dutch Muslim told her: "When I removed my veil, I told God, 'Deep in my heart I know you didn't create me to wear the veil."'
But, in harsh contrast, many just accept their lot. "They say, 'My life is difficult but I have to obey my husband. Allah said I should endure my life on this earth in order to get a better life in the hereafter.'
"Women have more power than they realise if they could only think differently."
At a book fair in Antwerp in October, a liberal think-tank has invited Hirsi Ali to read from her book The Virgin Cage (like her first book, The Son Factory, it is a collection of articles).
She arrives in a car with darkened windows and more plainclothes policemen. She looks tired and nervous. In the past two years, she has had virtually no social life.
"My friends complain I'm not there for them any more. Ever since I got into this, I haven't had a birthday. I had a relationship with a man and he was like, 'I'm having a relationship with a ghost."'
But she persevered. A mentor told her: "We only have what we have now as women because other women in the past have made themselves strong."
"The sacrifice may be big but the opportunity is huge. I am in a country where I can exercise self-reflection on my civilisation, whereas my counterparts in Syria or Saudi Arabia would be immediately hanged.
"Your own family will chop your head off. In Somalia, if you kill your daughter, nobody will say that what you have done is wrong; they will say, 'I'm sorry - how horrible for you. It's good that you've now washed the shame off your family."'
Her relentless work schedule extends into evenings and weekends. Recently she gave an interview to a Dutch magazine ("They will run an article about women living under the Taliban, but what about the Muslim women living around the corner?").
She has pushed through measures to aid integration, such as new youth camps and a system making it harder to found Muslim-only schools.
She is shocked when I tell her British Prime Minister Tony Blair is bringing in more faith schools.
"It is very stupid, a very bad idea. If you want girls to not just be oppressed but believe in their oppression, send them to a faith school. Who's financing them? The government?
That is so horrible."
She also works to combat the genital mutilation of young girls. It has been illegal in the Netherlands since 1993 , but it still goes on.
At the book fair, she talks about the lack of support for abused Muslim women, victims of tolerance. She says: "I think if Allah existed, he would say, 'I'm sorry, I was wrong about women.' We need a new Enlightenment."
She quotes a recent study showing that a lot of Muslim women are deficient in vitamin D, because they don't absorb enough of it from sunlight.
Afterwards she receives a large bouquet and heartfelt applause. She signs 300 books. She looks exhausted. Her bodyguards are keen to whisk her off into the night.
"It's not just about me, about one person, any more: it's about the whole country," she says. "The moment something happens to me is the moment when Muslims and non-Muslims will clash. The tension - you don't see it, but it's there. It shocked all of us when Pim Fortuyn was killed. Everyone was [hoping] it wasn't a Muslim."
Little does she know that just a few days later, Dutch tolerance will truly be put to the test when van Gogh is shot and stabbed to death - apparently by an Islamic militant.
The Sunday Times