As you read this, Ayaan Hirsi Ali sits in a safe house with armed men guarding her door. She is one of the most poised, intelligent and compassionate advocates of freedom of speech and conscience alive today, and for this she is despised in Muslim communities throughout the world. The details of her story bear repeating, as they illustrate how poorly equipped we are to deal with the threat of Muslim extremism in the West.
Hirsi Ali first fled to the Netherlands as a refugee from Somalia in 1992 after declining to submit to a forced marriage to a man she did not know. Once there, in hiding from her family, she began working as a cleaning lady. But this cleaning lady spoke Somali, Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, English and was quickly learning Dutch, so she soon found work as a translator for other Somali refugees, many of whom, like herself, were casualties of Islam. These women had been abused, mutilated, denied medical care and proper educations and forced into lives of sexual subjection and compulsory childbearing.
After attending the University of Leiden, Hirsi Ali began speaking publicly about the repression of women under Islam, and shortly thereafter she started receiving death threats from local Muslims. Her security situation eventually became so dire that she moved to the U.S. in 2002. However, she was soon contacted by Gerrit Zalm, then deputy prime minister of the Netherlands, who urged her to run for parliament. When Hirsi Ali voiced her security concerns, Zalm assured her that she would be given diplomatic protection wherever and whenever she needed it. She returned to the Netherlands with this assurance, won a seat in parliament and became a tireless advocate for women, for civil society and for reason.
The rest of her story is well known. In 2004, Hirsi Ali collaborated with Theo van Gogh on the film “Submission,” which examined the link between Islamic law and the suffering of millions of women under Islam. The reaction from the Muslim community was nothing short of psychopathic, and it confirmed the necessity of Hirsi Ali’s work and the reasonableness of her fears. Van Gogh, having declined bodyguards of his own, was gunned down and nearly decapitated on an Amsterdam street, and a letter threatening Hirsi Ali was staked to his chest with a butcher knife.
Hirsi Ali was immediately forced into hiding and moved from safe house to safe house, sometimes more than once a day, for months. Eventually, her security concerns drove her from the Netherlands altogether. She returned to the U.S., and the Dutch government has been paying for her protection here—that is, until it suddenly announced last week that it would no longer protect her outside the Netherlands, thereby advertising her vulnerability to the world.
Hirsi Ali may be the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust. As such, she is a unique and indispensable witness to both the strength and weakness of the West: to the splendor of open society and to the boundless energy of its antagonists. She knows the challenges we face in our struggle to contain the misogyny and religious fanaticism of the Muslim world, and she lives with the consequences of our failure each day. There is no one in a better position to remind us that tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.
Having recapitulated the Enlightenment for herself in a few short years, Hirsi Ali has surveyed every inch of the path leading out of the moral and intellectual wasteland that is traditional Islam. She has written two luminous books describing her journey, the most recent of which, “Infidel,” has been an international bestseller for months. It is difficult to exaggerate her courage. As Christopher Caldwell wrote in the New York Times, “Voltaire did not risk, with his every utterance, making a billion enemies who recognized his face and could, via the Internet, share information instantaneously with people who aspired to assassinate him.”
The Dutch Parliament will be debating Hirsi Ali’s case this week. As it stands, the government’s decision to protect her only within the borders of the Netherlands is genuinely perverse. While the Dutch have complained about the cost of protecting Hirsi Ali in the United States, it is actually far more expensive for them to protect her in the Netherlands, as the risk to her is greatest there.
There is also the matter of broken promises: Hirsi Ali was persuaded to run for parliament and to become the world’s most visible and imperiled spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women, on the understanding that she would be provided security for as long as she needed it. Zalm, in his capacity as both the deputy prime minister and the minister of finance, promised her such security without qualification. Most shamefully, Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, has recommended that Hirsi Ali simply quit the Netherlands and has refused to grant her even a week’s protection outside the country, during which she might raise funds to hire security of her own. Is this a craven attempt to placate local Muslim fanatics? A warning to other Dutch dissidents not to stir up trouble by speaking too frankly about Islam? Or just pure thoughtlessness?
The Dutch government should recognize a scandal in the making and rediscover its obligation to provide Hirsi Ali with the protection she was promised.There is not a person alive more deserving of the freedoms of speech and conscience we take for granted in the West, nor is there anyone making a more courageous effort to defend them.
Sam Harris is the author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Salman Rushdie is a novelist whose works include “Midnight’s Children,” which won the Booker Prize, and “The Satanic Verses.”
October 9, 2007