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
The Observer,,1779723,00.html

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

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

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

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

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

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.'


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