Andrew Osborn








Unlikely martyr who battled the mullahs forced to flee for her life

The Observer, 10th November 2002 13:38

The 'Dutch Salman Rushdie', a Muslim woman who dared to criticise Islam, has ignited a firestorm

by Andrew Osborn

She makes an unlikely martyr. But Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a 32-year-old Somali-born Muslim immigrant to the Netherlands, who took cleaning jobs while she studied Dutch, has been forced to flee her adopted country under threat of death. Now she is becoming known as a latter-day Salman Rushdie.

Her crime is uncannily similar to the author of The Satanic Verses: she launched a stinging attack on Islam, a religion she herself has rejected, and in doing so earned the enduring hatred of the mullahs she targeted. The fact that the criticism came from a woman and one who had turned her back on Allah made her situation all the more precarious.

Nor did she mince her words. A political adviser to the Dutch Labour Party, she savaged what she said was the cruelty and abuse meted out to many Muslim women living in Western societies - and she did so on national TV.

Calling Islam a 'backward' religion, she claimed that orthodox Muslim men frequently indulge in domestic violence against women as well as incest and child abuse. To make matters worse, she added, such unacceptable behaviour is routinely covered up and never spoken about. And she launched a strong attack on the Netherlands' programme of multicultualism, which she said encouraged the isolation of Muslim women.

She can't have known what effect those words would have, but in a post-11 September world and in a country which was still mourning the loss of Pim Fortuyn - a gay maverick anti-politician who despised Islam and openly said so - her words generated a political and cultural firestorm.

Within days she had received several serious death threats - apparently from extremist Muslims - and was forced to go into hiding. Now she has fled the Netherlands, a refugee once again, hounded out of her adopted home by a torrent of messages of hate.

The messages - which were anonymous and delivered over the phone - called her a traitor to Islam and a slut. Hate mail also appeared on the internet claiming she deserved to be knifed and shot. The police advised her to change address and questions were asked in parliament about whether or not she warranted bodyguards.

At a time when the Netherlands' almost one-million-strong Muslim community (out of a total population of 16 million) felt itself vulnerable and subject to attack, her words seemed to some to play into the hands of those demanding a clampdown on immigration, and anti-Muslim sentiment.

Uproar followed the first death threat, with one prominent news magazine claiming they were a fraud, a claim which Islamic lobby groups seized upon with delight but one which turned out to be baseless. More than 100 Dutch writers took out newspaper ads offering her their support.

In an effort to distance themselves from the affair, 17 Muslim organisations signed a declaration condemning the death threats, but many Muslims felt betrayed by Hirsi Ali and took serious issue with her allegations. Her comments had, they said, opened up a rift in the Dutch Muslim community at a time when it needed to be more united than ever.

The views of Ali Eddaudi, a Moroccan writer and cleric living in the Netherlands, were typical of many. He dismissed 'all the fuss' over a Muslim woman who 'pandered to the Dutch' and wanted, he said, to be a model immigrant.

Fearing for her life, Hirsi Ali - by now dubbed the Dutch Salman Rushdie - remained in hiding until last month. But now she has gone one step further, decided that enough is enough and fled the country she sought sanctuary in 10 years earlier.

Rumoured to be in the United States or the UK, she has also spoken out for the first time about why she felt the need to blow the whistle on 'the unacceptable side of Islam' and has turned her fire and her back on the same Dutch Labour Party she used to work for.

'I had to speak up,' she told the New York Times yesterday from her hiding place 'because most spokesmen for Muslims... are men and they deny or belittle the enormous problems of Muslim women locked up in their Dutch homes.

'I've made people so angry because I'm talking from the inside, from direct knowledge. It's seen as treason. I'm considered an apostate, and that's worse than an atheist.'

She explained: 'Sexual abuse in the family causes the most pain because the trust is violated on all levels. The father or the uncle say nothing, nor do the mother and the sisters. It happens regularly - the incest, the beatings, the abortions. Girls commit suicide. But no one says anything. And social workers are sworn to professional secrecy.'

However, her scorn is not reserved for orthodox Muslims alone. She also blames the Dutch Labour Party for the apparent failure of the country's immigration and integration policy.

Although no longer in power, Labour has governed the country for long stretches and has, she says, pursued a damaging 'strategy of silence' when it comes to Islam and problems surrounding immigration in general.

Branding the Labour Party's approach to multiculturalism 'soft', she argues that its tactic of promoting the preservation of Muslim identity by subsidising special schools and associations has backfired. The result, she says, is segregation and misery for Muslim women, who are left isolated and unprotected.

'If the West wants to help modernise Islam, it should invest in women, because they educate the children.'

Ton van Lierop, a political journalist, says: 'The feeling on the street is that it is ridiculous that a woman like this can't say what she wants. There is a feeling that Muslim women are oppressed by their men and people think it's a good thing that this woman has dared to stand up and say so.'

Hirsi Ali's views carry all the more weight because they are perceived to come from someone who knows what she is talking about.

Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, she underwent what she calls the 'cruel ritual' of female circumcision when she was five and for much of her youth was kept veiled and locked indoors.

At 22, her father tried to force her to marry a distant cousin she had never met, but she managed to escape to the Netherlands where she obtained political asylum. It was while working as an interpreter for the Dutch immigration and social services that she discovered 'suffering on a terrible scale' among Muslim women in the Netherlands.

The solution, she believes, is to use Dutch law to pursue more vigorously Muslim men who beat their wives and daughters, to stop teaching immigrants in their own language and to stop paying for the 700 Islamic clubs, most of which, she says, 'are run by deeply conservative men and perpetuate the segregation of women'.

Hirsi Ali has refused to moderate her views in the face of the death threats and does not intend to hide away forever.


'Either I stop my work, or I learn to live with the feeling that I'm not safe,' she said.