TV & Radio
Secrets and lies that doomed a radical liberal
Ayaan Hirsi Ali championed the rights of Islamic women and warned of the dangers to Holland from refugees. Now she must leave the country after being accused of lying her way in, writes Jason Burke in Rotterdam
Jason Burke in Rotterdam
Sunday May 21, 2006
Late afternoon and the grubby 1950s glass and concrete alleyways of Rotterdam's centre are full of teenagers. Black, white, dreadlocked, shaved, speaking Dutch, Chinese, or a French-Arabic-Dutch mixture, all of them wear jeans, T-shirts, and cheap leather bomber jackets for boys, sequined belts for the girls. One or two wear headscarves with their make-up and bangles. On a bench is a stack of newspapers, the front page recounting the latest twist in the saga of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. 'The rise, the fall and then the rise again,' comments the seller sourly. 'I hope this time she goes for good.'
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia in 1969, raised in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, in Holland since 1992, is to move on, once more a refugee of a sort.
Her spokesman, Ingrid Pouw, yesterday finally put an end to a week of rabid speculation, telling The Observer that the 36-year-old MP will leave her adopted country at the end of August to take up a position at a conservative think-tank in Washington DC. After announcing her retirement from Dutch political life at a press conference last week, Hirsi Ali went straight to a meeting with the US ambassador to arrange for fast-track visas or even US residency documents, Pouw said.
Yesterday the dust was far from settling on the Hirsi Ali affair. A TV programme highlighting lies Hirsi Ali told on her asylum application and the subsequent decision by hardline immigration minister Rita Verdonk to strip her of her Dutch citizenship, has triggered a political crisis in Holland. Elsewhere in Europe, the shockwaves created by the controversy are spreading too, with some claiming that another voice against repression had been silenced by force and others welcoming the end of a campaign seen as provocative and negative.
Once more, Hirsi Ali had succeeded in forcing the most difficult, uncomfortable issues of immigration, integration, religion and culture to the forefront of debate in a fiercely uncompromising way.
Hirsi Ali fled Somalia with her family to Saudi Arabia when her father's political activities brought him into conflict with the Somali government, and then on to Kenya.
In 1992, fleeing an arranged marriage, she arrived in Holland where she worked first as a cleaner and then as a translator at a refugee centre in Rotterdam - an experience that marked her deeply, according to one friend interviewed by The Observer. A victim herself of female circumcision, Hirsi Ali was shocked by the male repression of immigrant women living in one of the most developed and tolerant societies in the world.
She studied political science at Leiden University and found a position in a leftwing think-tank. With such credentials, as well as her striking looks, she was well placed when the attacks of 11 September 2001 focused global attention on Islamic radicalism. Her self-appointed mission was to make the Dutch and Europeans aware of 'the repressive nature of Islam' and of the dangers of mass immigration, which led to an invitation from the Dutch Liberal party to join them and, very rapidly, to a seat in parliament.
Despite the Liberals' right-wing economics and uncompromising anti-immigration stance, Hirsi Ali pronounced the party her political home.
Yet, though increasingly known in Holland, it was only in 2004 that she became an international figure when film-maker Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death by a radical Islamist after he made a film with Hirsi Ali called Submission, using quotes from the Koran projected over a semi-naked woman to highlight domestic violence in Muslim societies. After the murder, Hirsi Ali went into hiding, surrounded by bodyguards.
But though she continued with her public, parliamentary and international engagements, the stress of constant death-threats and increasing criticism of her trenchant statements, began to tell. When, earlier this year, a court decided that she would have to leave her home in The Hague because she was endangering her neighbours, Hirsi Ali, friends said, started thinking about moving overseas. And then a new documentary was broadcast on Dutch TV. It was made by Gus van Dongen, an experienced TV journalist. He travelled to Somalia and Kenya to interview members of Hirsi Ali's family.
'There was no agenda,' van Dongen said last week. 'She is a politician who had made much of her background, telling one story. We set out to check those facts. That is all.'
The TV programme, broadcast 10 days ago, highlighted the fact that Hirsi Ali had falsified her original asylum application in Holland, saying that she had not come from war-torn Somalia as she claimed, but from Kenya, where she had lived peacefully for 10 years. The fact that she had lied was well-known, retorted Hirsi Ali, making the point that was she was fleeing a forced marriage. Not so, said van Dongen, using testimony from her brother and husband to allege that the marriage was not made under compulsion. Nor van Dongen said, was Hirsi Ali raised in a strict Muslim family.
An old story, said Hirsi Ali.
But not as far as Rita Verdonk, the Dutch 'iron lady' and minister of immigration, was concerned. Though a member of the Liberal party too, she launched an investigation and within days decided that Hirsi Ali should be stripped of her passport. The result was a huge row in parliament, splitting the Liberal party and the rest of the ruling right-wing coalition. This weekend Verdonk has promised to reconsider. But few think she will change her stance.
The affair has attracted international attention - most of it misinformed according to Bas Heijne, a newspaper columnist. 'This is being completely misjudged overseas,' said Heijne. 'It's all about domestic politics. The neo-conservative wave that swept Holland in recent years is running out of steam and turning in on itself. One of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's problems is that she had no real political base, either in immigrant communities or in the native Dutch population.'
But others, in Holland and overseas, see the battle as representative of far deeper issues. Robert Zoellick, number two at the US State Department, welcomed her decision last week - in part a tacit condemnation of 'wishy washy' Europeans who refuse to take a firm stance against radical islam.
Such transatlantic criticism appears increasingly inappropriate. On Thursday last week, the French national assembly passed a hardline package of immigration measures which will have a major impact in coming years. In Holland, stricter laws have resulted in a drop from 43, 500 asylum applications in 2000 to 12,300 last year. 'It's getting much harder for refugees to get into Europe. All the ministers are watching and copying each other,' said Annemiek Bots, of the Dutch Refugee Council.
But the real issue raised by Hirsi Ali is not so much immigration as integration - and free speech. For Gijs van Westelaken, who made Submission with Van Gogh and Ali, the activist has challenged 'the complacency' of a society that would 'do anything' not to address the difficult issue of how to integrate nearly 1.7 million immigrants, one in 10 of the population, of whom around two-thirds are Muslim. 'Theo van Gogh was silenced. Now Hirsi Ali has been silenced too,' he said. Yet there is little chance that she will abandon her campaigning, he said. 'It's a mission, it's what makes her tick.'
In Rotterdam the jury is still out on Hirsi Ali. The port city is one of Holland's most cosmopolitan with more than 30 per cent of electors of foreign origin. Recent elections saw a 25 per cent cut in seats on the city council for the right-wing party linked to the Liberals. In the Rotterdam Immigrants' Association offices, Mohammed Bibi, the director, praised the fact that Hirsi Ali had 'started a discussion'. 'But she did it in a very rude way and she related everything - violence, female circumcision, repression - to religion where actually it is cultural,' he said.
Burak, 25, a taxi driver from Turkey, said the only good Hirsi Ali had done was to stimulate debate. 'Islam is a religion of peace ... People are terrorists not because of their religion but because of their hate,' he said. Burak was unsure, however, if he would stay in the Netherlands. 'It is OK in Holland but is getting bad to be a Muslim now.'
In her own words ...
On immigration: 'I am not against migration. It is pragmatic to restrict migration, while encouraging integration and fighting discrimination.'
On religion: 'I do not believe in God, angels and the hereafter.'
On 9/11: Referring to hijacker Mohammed Atta's letter to his accomplices telling them to pray for martyrdom, she said: 'If I were a male under the same circumstances, I could have been there. It was exactly what I used to believe.'
On Islam: 'When a Life of Brian comes out with Muhammad in the lead role, directed by an Arab equivalent of van Gogh, it will be a huge step.'
On the lessons she learned from an Iranian-trained Shia fundamentalist: 'I had never seen an Israeli, but we hated them because it was "Muslim" to hate them.'
On herself: 'I have no real social life. It's like having a body with no bottom [a Somali expression]... who on earth can I saddle with a relationship? It's not off limits, and technically it can all happen. But is it, as we say in Dutch, verstandig? Sensible? It doesn't seem sensible now.'
A Critic of Islam in Trouble - TIME Europe