Der Spiegel, January 21, 2005
THE VAN GOGH MURDER
Out of Hiding
By Erich Wiedemann
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.
“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
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.