Shaking Pillars of Islam

Times Staff Writer

After he shot Theo van Gogh and slashed his throat, the assassin plunged a second knife into his victim, pinning to the chest a bloodstained message to the woman who was the killer’s nemesis: Dutch lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

“You mince no words about your hostility against Islam, and for this your masters have rewarded you with a seat in Parliament,” declared the letter left by the assassin, Mohammed Bouyeri. “I’d bet my life that you are sweating with FEAR when you read this.... Ayaan Hirshi [sic] Ali, you shall break yourself to pieces on Islam!”

The murder a year ago was choreographed to make Ali feel the wrath of an apocalyptic God. Bouyeri wanted to punish the diminutive Somali-born legislator, who had made a film with Van Gogh denouncing abuse of Muslim women.


Although the filmmaker’s murder convulsed Dutch society, the assassin failed to silence Ali. She remains one of the toughest, most endangered leaders in Europe. With a cultured African accent and a soft laugh, she delivers a defiant message.

“If you want to integrate migrants and especially Muslims, then you will have to address cultural issues,” said Ali, 35, who has been the target of two assassination plots herself. “People are talking, carefully, very carefully, about, ‘Yes, there must be something in Islam that’s not compatible with democracy. And yes, some migrants do have some cultural traits that are not compatible with modernity, that are not compatible with a society based on universal human rights principles.’ ”

Working into the evening in a well-guarded office in parliament, Ali retains the elegance and charisma that propelled her from refugee to political star. She wears a black pantsuit and sweater on a small, slender frame. She has oval eyes in a long, delicate face set off by pearl earrings.

She insists that extremism grows not from a fanatic fringe, but from the precepts of a religion that needs profound reform. She argues that her personal experience -- circumcision, beatings, forced marriage -- showed her that Islam collides with democracy and oppresses women.

Many Western politicians shrink from such hard truths, Ali asserts.

“They are afraid that if you say ... you must reform Islam, those millions of quiet Muslims who are not up to anything will all fall into the arms of the fundamentalists,” she said. “I think it’s the wrong approach. Because let’s go back in time to when Christianity was bloody and barbaric and oppressive.... It only changed after the premises upon which that belief rested were challenged by free thinkers.”

Behind this country’s fairy-tale facade of brick cottages, shimmering canals and gliding bicycles, Ali has forced the Dutch to confront questions about culture, tolerance and free speech.

Acting on legislation proposed by Ali, authorities studied abuse of Muslim women in two Dutch cities; they documented 11 “honor killings” committed in just eight months by male relatives who thought the victims had shamed their families. The government is cracking down on extremists and illegal immigrants. There’s talk of banning the burka in public. And police say they just foiled a new plot against Ali and the chairman of parliament.

Nonetheless, some Dutch politicians agree with Muslim leaders who think Ali goes too far. She has clashed with figures in her center-right ruling party and the center-left opposition, notably Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen. City officials at first did not invite Ali to a memorial service that was held Wednesday on the anniversary of the murder in Amsterdam, where Van Gogh was ambushed as he rode his bike. She attended only because the slain man’s mother insisted.

Organizers did not ask her to speak at the event, so she published a letter in European newspapers addressed to the maverick filmmaker. It said her friend had resisted a “straightjacket of political correctness” and died fighting “barbarism.”

Some people have difficulty identifying Ali’s politics. She mixes feminism, atheism and fiscal conservatism. Critics accuse her of playing into the hands of far-right racists, but many of her views would be considered liberal in the United States.

Despite international fame and accolades, her crusade inspires resentment along with admiration here, even among Muslim women.

“I think she’s sincere in defending women,” said Karima Belhaj, a left-leaning DutchMoroccan activist who works in women’s healthcare and counseling. “But she lost herself in the falseness of fame and the arena of the media. Her admirers are white people from the upper class.”

Belhaj, 35, thinks that Ali exaggerates Islamic culture as a root of domestic abuse that also results from the hardship and frustration of the immigrant experience. She accuses Ali of spurring Muslim backlash.

“She somehow frustrated the emancipation of women that was going on already,” said Belhaj, who describes herself as Muslim but not religious. “There are things in the Koran that are anti-women. But her attacks have raised anger among women, and they are retreating into Islamic identity.”

Ali makes no apologies. She plans a sequel to last year’s “Submission,” the short film that she wrote and Van Gogh directed. Some Muslims were offended by the images of Koranic verses written on bodies of actresses who recounted woes at the hands of men. During the trial that ended in his conviction, Bouyeri said he had killed Van Gogh for slandering God.

The cast and crew of the new film will remain anonymous. It will tell the stories of four Muslim men. They will have verses of the Koran written on their bodies; one will be gay.

“You should never bow down to terror,” Ali said. “I think it’s a good reaction to say ‘Submission, Part 2’ is going to come and I am protected and we are not going to keep quiet.”

Indignant Muslim leaders sued to block the sequel, but a judge ruled against them while warning Ali to avoid offending people.

Ali was born in Somalia, where her father led opposition to that country’s dictatorship. Persecution forced the family into exile in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. Ali was devout as a girl, but she became disenchanted with what she saw as a pervasive mentality of submission: of worshippers to God and of women to men.

In her book, “Unsubmissive,” she describes enduring the “cruel ritual” of genital mutilation when she was 5 and a beating by a religion professor that fractured her skull. The Islam she experienced was full of tyranny, backwardness and intolerance, she said.

“Islam has not yet known its century of Enlightenment,” she writes in the book, to be published in the United States next year.

Ali was 22 when her father forced her to marry a cousin living in Canada. She was sent from Africa to Germany to await immigration papers.

Instead, she fled to the Netherlands.

She got refugee status and worked as an interpreter for social service agencies, learning on the front lines about the shadow world of female immigrants struggling with abusive husbands, secret abortions and other nightmares.

Ali eventually divorced her unwanted husband. She earned a master’s degree in political science at Leyden University. She immersed herself in the writings of John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper and Baruch Spinoza. She had a romance with a fellow student and lived with him for five years, but remains single today and has no children.

Her gateway to politics was a job with the center-left Labor Party researching Dutch “multicultural” policy toward immigrants. Faithful to traditions of compromise and religious coexistence, the state provided generous welfare benefits, Islamic schools and native-language television. Authorities did little to impose a Dutch identity. Yet unemployment and resentment plagued a community that is mostly Moroccan and Turkish and numbers close to a million in a nation of 16 million.

Ali concluded that treating immigrants as groups, rather than individuals, led to isolation rather than integration. Official reluctance to judge other cultures reinforced archaic values that clashed with a society where gay marriage, drug use and prostitution are legal, she said. Multiculturalism helped keep many immigrant women mired in illiteracy and servitude, she argued.

Ali proposed shutting Islamic schools and other drastic remedies. She moved to the center-right VVD party and won election to parliament in 2003. Recurring threats forced police to give her 24-hour security.

The next year, the Van Gogh assassination unleashed the dangerous forces she had warned about. The news reached her at her office during a morning meeting. Bodyguards rushed her to hide-outs at military and police bases. SWAT teams rounded up extremists trained in foreign camps who allegedly had plotted to kill her.

The authorities “didn’t know where the threat came from,” she recalled. “They didn’t know how big it was. The information from the secret services, instead of trickling in, it was now coming in buckets.”

After secret talks with U.S. officials, who previously assisted investigations of threats against her, a Dutch military jet flew her to Maine. She spent weeks in Massachusetts and California, and remains grateful to the U.S. for the refuge.

Ali said she accepted temporary exile reluctantly because Dutch leaders were worried about further violence and uproar. By January, she was back. Anti-terrorist agents had decided that the potential threats were under control.

“I think next time we have to do it in a different way,” she said. “That wasn’t the most elegant way to do things. I would have preferred to stay ... [and] just show people who use violence that it doesn’t work.”

She lives today amid a phalanx of guards. Danger has become routine, like a coat she never takes off. Members of a rap group in The Hague were arrested for an obscene song threatening Ali. Bouyeri, who is serving a life sentence, is a celebrity in prison.

Despite fast-growing extremism, the Dutch mentality resists changing some of the weakest anti-terrorism laws in Europe. The ringleader of a group accused last month of plotting against Ali was a hard-core radical with three previous arrests and a recent acquittal on terrorism charges.

“The ruling class now are the baby boomers, the ones who celebrated fighting authority,” Ali said. “Freedom of expression is now not threatened by government. It’s threatened by groups of people who will kill you if you say something they don’t like.”

Ali sees radical Islam as a reincarnation of the fascism that Europe once ignored or appeased with disastrous results.

“The lesson is, recognize it in time,” she said. “Muslims are getting a lot of propaganda which is radical, which is fascist in nature. And you have these Europeans who have come through the Second World War, who know how these ideologies come about and what they can lead to ... and it’s like, oh my goodness, we are doing it again.”

It’s not just radicals Ali worries about. She wants to pressure politicians “who have shut themselves off from reality by going from one meeting to the next.”

“I say this to politicians in Holland and elsewhere, I just take the Koran and show them, this is what Bouyeri said and it is written here,” she said. “And there are thousands like Bouyeri who are active in Iraq and in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and in Egypt and in minority pockets of Europe. Why don’t you want to see it?”

Rotella was recently on assignment in The Hague.