It was a heinous murder that made the best-selling memoirist Ayaan Hirsi Ali internationally famous, but she was neither the victim nor the perpetrator. The corpse was that of Theo van Gogh, a writer and filmmaker who in November 2004 was stabbed, slashed, and shot on an Amsterdam street by a Dutch-born Muslim extremist of Moroccan descent.
The assassin, driven to rage by Submission, a short film Van Gogh had made about the poor treatment of women under Islam, left no doubt about his motives. A letter he pinned to his victim’s chest with a knife was a call to jihad. It was also a death threat against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch parliament. She had persuaded Van Gogh to make Submission and had written the movie’s script.
Then 35, Hirsi Ali had already seen plenty of turmoil. She had endured a heavily religious upbringing in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, including a brutal circumcision to keep her “pure.” She chafed under the yoke of an embittered and sometimes violent mother and longed for a father who was perennially absent—often imprisoned or in hiding, due to his opposition to the Somali dictator Siad Barré.
In July 1992, Hirsi Ali defied her family’s wishes, refusing to marry the man to whom her father had betrothed her. She fled Kenya for the Netherlands, gaining refugee status and finding employment as a cleaning woman and a factory worker. She assimilated quickly, learning perfect Dutch and studying political science, a choice that led to a job as an analyst at the Labor Party’s think tank. There, to the consternation of her bosses, who had been courting the Muslim vote, Hirsi Ali worried out loud about Holland’s ever-burgeoning immigrant community and the rising tensions between Muslims and the native Dutch.
In Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ second-largest city, immigrants—mostly Muslims from Morocco and Turkey—had become a majority, with Amsterdam well on its way to a similar demographic sea change. That might not have been a problem, Hirsi Ali argued publicly, if the Dutch had only encouraged the newcomers to embrace the country’s culture the way she had. But the country’s multiculturalist mind-set, paired with the national inclination to tolerate almost any form of behavior, had led to minorities’ ghettoization and to a certain lawlessness. Dutch Muslims were largely content to stay in the neighborhoods they formed together, Hirsi Ali observed. Raised on a steady diet of Islamic preaching and Middle Eastern and North African satellite TV channels, many of them rejected the Dutch way of life as hedonistic, even sinful.
Hirsi Ali wasn’t shy about mentioning the Muslim community’s self-imposed insularity, or the crime wave involving disproportionate numbers of second- and third-generation Dutch Moroccans. But mostly she agitated against the oppression of local Muslim women by male family members: forced marriages, denial of education opportunities, domestic slave labor, and, in some horrific cases, honor killings. By extension, she criticized the native Dutch for turning a blind eye to the injustices in their midst, and for tolerating those who themselves refused to tolerate alternative lifestyles.
It was a shock and a revelation to see a young, black, Muslim woman championing causes previously associated with middle-aged white male pundits who had often been dismissed as racists or Islamophobes. Hirsi Ali’s star rose quickly, especially after she accepted an offer from the VVD, Holland’s pro-market party, to run for parliament. By then, she was receiving a stream of death threats from radical Dutch Muslims and their sympathizers. Once she won her parliamentary seat, the hate mail intensified. A security detail shadowed her everywhere. Van Gogh’s murder proved the threat was all too real.
Throughout her parliamentary career, which lasted from 2003 to 2006, Hirsi Ali reaped both praise and controversy. She continued writing and speaking out in favor of free speech and the right to offend. 2004 was an especially turbulent year both privately and publicly. In May she swore off Islam and all religion. Van Gogh’s assassination made her internationally famous, and she garnered a spot on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world and a European of the Year Award from the European editors of Reader’s Digest. Even the readers of De Volkskrant, a newspaper that had long embraced unfettered multiculturalism, were enthralled: They chose Hirsi Ali as their Dutch Person of the Year at the end of 2004.
In May and June of last year, a tempest in a teacup erupted over her alleged truth-twisting at the time of her Dutch asylum application. (She allegedly used false biographical data.) Hirsi Ali had already decided to move on. The publication of her autobiography, Infidel, was imminent. Early whispers about a resident fellow position with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., turned out to be correct. Hirsi Ali moved to America, and she joined the institute in the fall of last year.
In June, Hirsi Ali talked with the Dutch-born journalist Rogier van Bakel in Washington, D.C. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reason: Tell me how you came to the United States and the American Enterprise Institute.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I was a member of parliament back in the Netherlands, and my party asked if I wanted to run for the next elections, in 2007. I declined. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s cabinet was very precarious anyway; every two or three weeks we thought the government would fall, which would mean elections, which would force all of us members of parliament to think about what we were going to do next. So I had already decided I didn’t want to run for elections, and wanted instead to go back to being a scholar. Cynthia Schneider, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, said she’d be delighted to take me around in the United States and introduce me—to the Brookings Institution, the Johns Hopkins Institute, Georgetown University, the RAND Corporation. I balked at paying a visit to the American Enterprise Institute, though.
Reason: Why the initial aversion?
Hirsi Ali: Because I thought they would be religious, and I had become an atheist. And I don’t consider myself a conservative. I consider myself a classical liberal.
Anyway, the Brookings Institution did not react. Johns Hopkins said they didn’t have enough money. The RAND Corporation wants its people to spend their days and nights in libraries figuring out statistics, and I’m very bad at statistics. But at AEI they were enthusiastic. It turns out that I have complete freedom of thought, freedom of expression. No one here imposed their religion on me, and I don’t impose my atheism on them.