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By Stephen Castle - NZHerald.co.nz


Two burly bodyguards are watching from the wings as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch MP, critic of Islam and the Netherlands' best-protected woman, takes the stage at a lecture theatre in The Hague. About 90 people have come to hear her speak about the European Union constitution, but the bodyguards are paying most attention to four Asian youths sitting in the front row, staring hard at the woman who famously described Islam as "backward".

Something about the youths' body language suggests that they are less interested in Hirsi Ali's views on European integration than her status as the country's leading critic of Islam, a woman living under a host of death threats. Some minutes later, while she is in full flow, the youths stand up in unison and walk out.

Hirsi Ali is unfazed. Aged 35, the Somali-born former asylum-seeker has found herself at the heart of Holland's recent traumatic political history.

She published her first critical article about Islam after the events of September 11 and was rewarded for her pains with her first death threat. Her calls for a brake on immigration and an end to Islamic schools provoked ructions and, even after the murder of the maverick Dutch anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn (assassinated by an animal rights activist in 2002), she did not pull her punches.

She wrote the film Submission, which depicted the abuse of women under Islam and was produced by outspoken film-maker Theo van Gogh. He was shot and nearly decapitated in broad daylight in Amsterdam and a five-page letter pinned to his chest with a knife threatened Ali with a similar fate.

Van Gogh's killing in November last year forced her into hiding and a life in perpetual motion, transported between secure locations surrounded by tight security.

She answers questions about her predicament by gesturing to the two bodyguards. "You can observe how it is," she says. "I am limited in my freedom of movement."

Things have improved from the immediate aftermath of the killing, when she had to sleep in a naval base. She has travelled to the United States and has met Salman Rushdie (the fatwa against whom she supported in her youth). Now she has a flat, although one of its two bedrooms is reserved for the security team, and each time she opens her door a bodyguard will appear to check on her.

She travels in an armour-plated car, and knows that were she to have a relationship she would put a partner's life at risk.

"I travel, I have an apartment since March so I have a little more privacy than when I was being moved from place to place," she says. She smiles slightly as she adds: "There are some bad things and some moments when I think, 'Well, what is all this about?' - some form of panic, you know - you are threatened and stuff like that.

"But there is also the positive side, because within three years I have been able to convey my message to the public. So everyone in Europe knows the situation of Muslim women is not comparable to the situation of the native women. That there are also atrocities performed in the name of culture and religion taking place within Europe, within the Netherlands, and governments must deal with this."

Born in 1969, the young Ayaan was a pious girl, devoted to her religion, one of three children. Because her father was an opponent of the Somali regime, her childhood was spent in exile in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, before she arrived in Nairobi, where she was educated. Her schoolfriends would regularly disappear as their parents, without warning, arranged marriages.

It was when her own wedding was planned in 1992, to a cousin in Canada she had never met, that her life changed. Sent to Germany while immigration papers were arranged, she decided to flee, the original idea being to go to England.

She recalls: "I wanted to go to the United Kingdom because I spoke English. I grew up in Nairobi, and did my education there. And I didn't feel like learning a new language at the age of 22."

That was not how it turned out because, as she puts it, "there was a sea between Germany and the UK". Instead she took a train to the Netherlands, though she "knew nothing about the Netherlands except that there was a footballer called [Marco] van Basten, that they had dykes, that they walked on wooden shoes - normal stereotypes".

What she found, she says, was "liberalism itself with traditional tolerance". From menial work she moved to become a translator for the social services, specialising in cases where women had been physically abused. She studied political science and joined the Dutch Labour party.

After September 11, her criticism of Islam as a backward religion offended the party's multicultural sensitivities. Eventually she quit Labour to join the centre-right VVD Liberal party.

The terror attacks in the US set in chain the events that catapulted her to prominence, though she sees herself as a pawn in a wider game, her comments used by both sides in a polarised debate.

Now, she regrets the language she used. She says: "I was in a debate with some men and they had provoked me to trade insults with them. They had accused me of calling Islam backward. I was brought up within Islam, so why don't I have the right to call my own religion backward?

"When I blurted that out I did not know it was going to cause so much commotion. I should have used another word, 'lagged behind' - more politically correct - I don't think it would have helped though."

Why is Hirsi Ali a supporter of the now-foundering European constitution? She believes that fundamentalism, terrorism and illegal immigration can be tackled only at a European level, and that the EU is one of the answers to population movements and fanaticism, and a bastion of freedoms and basic standards for women.

"When it comes to co-operating in matters of migration, trading women, and drugs, this constitution gives us the opportunity to co-operate on all of those issues, especially in fighting against terrorism," she says.

"We don't have [frontier checks at] borders with Belgium and Germany anymore so we can't control our borders anymore, our [external] borders lie very far away and I think this constitution helps develop a unified aim on matters like migration, asylum, terrorism."

A supporter of the French separation of religion and state, Hirsi Ali is pleased that the constitution document does not refer to Christianity. She argues: "I think that religion and politics should be kept apart and the constitution is a political instrument, it's public life, and I consider religion a private affair.

"Because there are so many gods and so many holy books and so much belief and superstition, it's hard to elevate one of them into the constitution while leaving the others behind." To do so, she adds, "would be excluding all the Muslims and all the Buddhists and all the Sikhs and all the atheists like me. I think it is not wise to have religion in the constitution".

But the Dutch 'no' does not surprise her. She says that Dutch have in their mind a vision of Madurodam, a neat and pleasant children's attraction in The Hague based on a scaled-down model of a city.

"It's this perfect little place. About 50 years ago the Netherlands looked like that, there was no real crime, and people got police tickets because they were sitting on the wrong side of their bicycle. Now they have to deal with issues of migration and Islamic fundamentalism and the whole aftermath of the globalisation process."