Ayaan Hirsi Ali is supposed to be on the run, but, as one last spring snowstorm turned Amsterdam’s lacy bridges and gabled canal houses into a confectioner’s delight, she seemed to be everywhere. On television the slim, pantsuit-clad, Somali-born legislator demanded that the Dutch intelligence service investigate the honor killings of Muslim girls. In the pages of newspapers she harangued the health authorities to examine schoolgirls for evidence of genital mutilation. At prize ceremonies she warned European governments that women in their Muslim communities remain under threat.
Seven months ago, Hirsi Ali’s implacable campaign against what she views as Islam’s oppression of women prompted a Muslim fanatic to ritually slaughter Theo van Gogh, her Dutch collaborator on the film Submission. The murderer used his knife to affix a five-page letter to the corpse promising the same treatment for Hirsi Ali and another Dutch politician who has criticized Islam. The murder sent Dutch society into paroxysms of rage and fear, sparking dozens of attacks on mosques and schools. But it didn’t seem to faze Hirsi Ali. In a series of defiant interviews, the former refugee refused to be intimidated. When a group of Muslims tried to block her from making a sequel to Submission, she fought back in court and won. Like a dark avenging angel, she seemed to loom over Holland’s wintry Dutch, her ubiquitous media presence a virtual guarantee of further conflict.
In the United States, where few people have had the chance to read or see her critiques of Islam, the 35-year-old Hirsi Ali has been almost exclusively portrayed as a champion of free speech and women’s rights. In the Netherlands, however, she remains the subject of intense controversy. Well before van Gogh’s murder, she had become a major hate figure among Dutch Muslims, who accuse her of stirring up Islamophobia on behalf of a cabal of right-wing politicians and columnists. Since the murder, a surprising number of native-born Dutch intellectuals have come around to the Muslim point of view.
In a series of “Letters to Hirsi Ali” published this spring in the newspaper De Volkskrant, several well-known, mostly male writers charged her with poisoning the political atmosphere with her strident attacks on Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. They argued that by pandering to Dutch prejudices and putting Muslims on the defensive, she contributes to the very Islamic radicalization she claims to want to stop. In a book rushed into print in February, the popular historian Geert Mak went so far as to compare Submission to Joseph Goebbels’s infamous Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew. He warned that the Netherlands could be on the road to civil war. “When the time comes for us to tell our grandchildren, how will we tell the story of the last months of 2004?” Mak asked breathlessly. “The tone, the new tone that suddenly had taken hold? Where did it all begin?”
The backlash against Hirsi Ali has astonished and disappointed many Dutch feminists, who continue to count themselves among her biggest fans. Margreet Fogteloo, editor of the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, said flatly that Mak is crazy. “People like him feel guilty because they were closing their eyes for such a long time to what was going on,” she said. In what appears to be a Europe-wide pattern, some feminists are aligning themselves with the anti-immigrant right against their former multiculturalist allies on the left. Joining them in this exodus to the right are gay activists, who blame Muslim immigrants for the rising number of attacks on gay couples.
The woman who has stirred so many emotions is slight and doe-eyed, with a soft voice and small hands. Her life is itself a testament to the fluidity of Muslim politics: Today’s radical feminist was once a teenage Islamist. Born in 1969, she’s the daughter of a Somali opposition politician who attended Columbia University in the 1960s, becoming a staunch anti-Communist. But exposure to the West failed to change his traditional attitudes about the proper place of women, and he justified those attitudes by invoking Islam. Back in Somalia, he eventually took four wives. As is customary in Somalia, Hirsi Ali’s mother and grandmother forced her to undergo what she calls “the cruel ritual” of female genital mutilation at the age of 6. “I remember the lesson I learned more than the pain,” Hirsi Ali told one interviewer. “That to be a Muslim woman is to be born for the pleasure of men.” A year later, after the Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre imprisoned her father, the family was forced to flee the country. In Saudi Arabia she and her sister were veiled and kept indoors, forced to endure what she now calls “gender apartheid.”
Under the influence of an Iranian teacher, Hirsi Ali spent her high school years fully veiled. She has said that when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, her first thought was, “Oh, he should be killed.” Later Hirsi Ali began trying to find a way out of what she would eventually call “the virgin’s cage,” the obsession with sexual morality that she now argues has crippled the Muslim world. At the age of 22, she saw her chance. “As a Muslim girl, I was given in marriage to a nephew, after which I was expected to live out my days in isolation, as a housewife and mother,” she has written. The nephew lived in Canada. In Germany on the way to join him, she fled from relatives, hopped a train to Amsterdam and asked the Netherlands for asylum. Perhaps because she had already placed herself outside the social pale of the local Muslim community, she took another unusual step. Rather than turning to other immigrants for help, as most newcomers do, she found herself a Dutch foster mother. Her foster mother helped her learn the language. She took jobs as a cleaner and at a factory. Eventually she managed to earn a degree in politics at Leiden University.
Hirsi Ali began translating for the Dutch social services in shelters and hospitals while she was still in the asylum center. Over the years, she met women who had been locked inside their homes for years; she interviewed others who had been raped and beaten. She heard about girls who had been killed for holding hands with non-Muslim boys. Armed with her new understanding of women’s rights under Dutch law, she was outraged to learn that the authorities seldom interfered in such cases, writing them off as “family conflicts.” She had read and strongly agreed with the late American feminist Susan Moller Okin’s argument that multiculturalist policies aimed at protecting “culture” often end up contributing to the repression of women and children. She took particular exception to the Dutch policy of subsidizing more than 700 Islamic mosques, schools and clubs. She said conservative Muslim men use them to perpetuate their ideas about gender and sexuality and to prevent Dutch Muslim women from exercising their legal rights.
There was always a latent conflict in the idea of Europe’s most sexually wide-open country funding institutions aimed at promoting traditional Muslim values. Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay sociology professor, seized on that conflict after a number of assaults on gay couples by Muslim youth. He ran for office in Rotterdam in 2001 and won handily on a platform calling for a halt to Muslim immigration. Labeling Islam a “backward” religion, he questioned whether Muslim attitudes toward women and homosexuality were compatible with Dutch ideas of individual rights. Fortuyn’s anti-Muslim rants coincided with a series of attacks on mosques. Nevertheless, the popularity of his ideas soon had every Dutch party moving to the right on immigration.
In this climate of rising social tensions, Hirsi Ali landed a job at the Labor Party’s think tank, the Wiardi Beckman Institute. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks she was invited to discuss Islam and gender on television. Asked to comment on Fortuyn’s descriptions of Islam, she said, “By some criteria, Islam could be considered a backward religion.” The reaction that followed shocked everyone, except possibly Hirsi Ali herself. There were written death threats, and when she walked in the street, groups of Muslim boys called her a whore and shouted that they wanted to kill her. She had to leave the country briefly. Pim Fortuyn’s shocking assassination in May 2002, Holland’s first political murder in 300 years, hardened Hirsi Ali’s determination to press forward. That fall she wrote an article calling upon Muslim women to abandon the “outdated religious opinions” that prevented them from claiming their rights under Dutch law. A circle of older Dutch writers and politicians began to gather around her. Some, like the University of Utrecht philosopher Herman Phillipse, warned that Holland’s Muslim community was rapidly becoming indigestible. Others, such as the writer Paul Scheffer, favored using the government to promote integration. The politician Geert Wilders was perhaps the most inflammatory. “Why are we afraid to tell Muslims to adapt to us, simply because our values and norms represent a higher level of civilization–better, more pleasant and more humane. No more integration, but assimilation!” Wilders wrote.
Meanwhile, Hirsi Ali focused her broadsides more and more plainly on Islam itself. She wrote that the Prophet Mohammed was a “despicable” individual who had married “the 9-year-old daughter of his best friend.” “Mohammed is, by our Western standards, a perverse man,” she wrote. “A tyrant. He is against free speech. If you do not do what he says, then you will have an unhappy ending. It makes me think of all those megalomaniac rulers in the Middle East: bin Laden, Khomeini, Saddam.” By this point, Hirsi Ali had gravitated further to the right; she left the Labor Party for the center-right Liberal VVD Party and won a parliamentary seat in 2003.
Hirsi Ali’s many critics contend that far from being a revolutionary, she brings a message that the West is all too willing to hear. They say that in calling for European governments to protect Muslim women from Muslim men, she and her admirers recycle the same Orientalist tropes that the West has used since colonial times as an excuse to control and subjugate Muslims. “White men saving black women from black men–it’s a very old fantasy that is always popular,” Annelies Moors, a University of Amsterdam anthropologist who writes about Islamic gender relations, said dryly. “But I don’t think male violence against women, a phenomenon known to every society in history, can be explained by a few Koranic verses.”
Moors and others don’t dispute the existence of the social problems Hirsi Ali identifies. Many Dutch Muslim women do live in segregated “parallel cities” where Islamic social codes are enforced. Muslims make up only 5.5 percent of the Dutch population, but they account for more than half the women in battered women’s shelters and more than half of those seeking abortions. Muslim girls have far higher suicide rates than non-Muslim girls. Some Muslim girls, mostly African, are genitally mutilated. But in putting all the blame on Islam, they say, Hirsi Ali ignores the influence of patriarchal custom as well as the work of a generation of Muslim feminists. They point to thinkers like Fatima Mernissi and Amina Wadud, who have shown that Islam’s sacred texts can be interpreted in a more female-friendly way. And they say Hirsi Ali avoids mention of the role the West has played and continues to play in assisting the rise of the Islamist movements. “The rightist forces and the radical Islamists feed on each other, and she contributes to that,” Moors said.
Karima Belhaj is the director of the largest women’s shelter in Amsterdam. She’s also one of the organizers of the “Stop the Witchhunt!” campaign against what she sees as anti-Muslim hysteria. On the day we talked, she was despondent. Arsonists had set fire for the second time to an Islamic school in the town of Uden. A few days later a regional police unit warned that the rise of right-wing Dutch youth gangs potentially presents a more dangerous threat to the country than Islamist terrorism. “The rise of Islamism is not the problem,” Belhaj said. “The problem is that hatred against Arabs and Muslims is shown in this country without any shame.” With her message that Muslim women must give up their faith and their families if they want to be liberated, Hirsi Ali is actually driving women into the arms of the fundamentalists, said Belhaj: “She attacks their values, so they are wearing more and more veils. It frightens me. I’m losing my country. I’m losing my people.”
If Belhaj was sad, another “Stop the Witchhunt!” organizer was angry. Like Belhaj, Miriyam Aouragh is a second-generation immigrant of Moroccan background. A self-described peace and women’s activist, Aouragh was the first in her family to attend university. She’s now studying for a PhD in anthropology. She scoffs at the idea that Hirsi Ali is a champion of oppressed Muslim women. “She’s nothing but an Uncle Tom,” Aouragh said. “She has never fought for the oppressed. In fact, she’s done the opposite. She uses these problems as a cover to attack Islam. She insults me and she makes my life as a feminist ten times harder because she forces me to be associated with anti-Muslim attacks.”
Aouragh accuses Hirsi Ali and her political allies of deliberately fostering the hostility that has led to the attacks on Islamic institutions and to police brutality against young Muslim men. “I’m surprised the Arab-Muslim community isn’t more angry with her,” Aouragh said. “When she talks about Muslims as violent people, and Muslim men as rapists, this is very insulting. She calls the Prophet a pedophile. Theo van Gogh called the Prophet a pimp, a goat-fucker. Well, no, we don’t accept that.”
Although the press has focused on the threats against critics of Islam like Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, Aouragh says that there have been many more attacks on Dutch Muslims than on non-Muslims. She suspects that what the Dutch really fear is not Islamic fundamentalism but the prospect of having to deal with a new generation of highly educated young Muslims who demand a fair hearing for their values. “We are telling them, ‘We have rights, too. You have to change your idea about freedom or face the consequences.'”
Whatever happens to Hirsi Ali, the debate she helped polarize over women and Islam is sure to spread and intensify all over Europe in the next few years. As Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued in their book Rising Tide, the true clash of opinions between Islam and the West is not about democracy but sex. Successive World Values Surveys, in which social scientists polled public opinion in more than eighty countries between 1981 and 2001, have shown that people in Muslim countries share broadly the same views on political participation as people in the West. What they disagree strongly about is gender equality and sexual liberalization.
In the United States the distinction is not as sharply drawn. Conservative Muslims are not the only religious group here opposed to what they see as sexual license; it’s their opposition to Israel and US foreign policy, not their sexual politics, that sets American Muslims apart from the rest of the right. But in Europe, acceptance of gender equality and homosexuality have become core values across the political spectrum, said Jocelyne Cesari, a Harvard research associate and the author of When Islam and Democracy Meet. “Here it is part of a national debate that doesn’t involve immigrants only,” Cesari said. “In Europe, this is seen as proof that Muslims are still outsiders whose values are in contradiction to ours.”
Islamist thinkers have often argued that women are the key to culture, since they have the responsibility of raising children. An emerging coalition of European feminist and anti-immigration forces seems to be adopting the same view. In France, Belgium, Germany and Scandinavia, as in the Netherlands, the “woman question” is at the center of the debate over how to integrate the Muslim community. “I know most of my Muslim friends will disagree with me, but in my opinion the gender issue is the most important issue,” says Martijn de Koning, an anthropologist at Leiden University who studies jihadi groups. “The head scarf, the Islamic schools, the policy of family reunification–every debate here more or less concerns the position of women.”
Hirsi Ali is only the most prominent of a number of young Muslim women who have lately begun to criticize their own communities for their treatment of women. In Sweden, Fadime Sahindal campaigned against forced marriages before her father killed her in 2002 for having a relationship with a Swedish man. In France, Fadela Amara heads the Ni Putes ni Soumises (“Neither Whores nor Submissives”) movement against Islamist groups she calls “the green fascists.” In Germany, where six honor killings have taken place just this year, Seyran Ates, a Berlin-based lawyer, has charged the government with allowing Islamic fundamentalism to flourish under a policy of false tolerance.
In the United States, too, some of the Islamists’ most vigorous opponents have been female. Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies, have led the fight to open Muslim prayers to women. Most of the members of the newly formed Progressive Muslim Union, which aims to provide liberal Muslims with a platform, are women, according to co-founder Ahmed Nassef.
Many conservative Muslims have been almost as hostile to these female critics as they have been to Hirsi Ali. As with Hirsi Ali, they tend to disregard the women as deviants who want to change Islamic sexual mores because of their personal failure to live up to them. Nomani, who bore a son out of wedlock, was expelled from her hometown mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. She and Wadud received death threats and condemnation from religious authorities around the Muslim world for organizing a female-led prayer service in March in New York.
But particularly in Europe, some Islamists are beginning to see the woman question as their Achilles’ heel. The influential Swiss Islamist Tariq Ramadan recently warned Muslims that they were going to have to change their attitudes. “We are going through a reassessment,” he said, “and the most important subject is women. Our experience in Europe has made it clear that we must speak about equality.” In Austria in April, a meeting of 160 imams called for equality between men and women.
But talk may not be enough, at this point. In Human Visas, a new book that probably points in the direction Europe is going, Norwegian journalist and human rights activist Hege Storhaug argues that strict controls on immigration are the best way to protect European values and Muslim women’s rights. Storhaug, the information director of Human Rights Service, says that Europe’s concept of Muslim integration used to amount to “Get the father a job and integration will follow.” The new motto, she says, should be “Integrate the mother and two-thirds of the job is done, because the mother will integrate the children.”
Storhaug says that to dry up radical Islam, European governments need to break up the “parallel societies” Muslims have established in cities across the continent. Older men in these communities prevent integration by controlling marriages. “The families are under tremendous pressure to bring relatives from the home country to Europe,” she said. “Relatives are willing to pay a lot for those residency visas. Especially with young immigrant brides, they become completely dependent on their husbands and in-laws. Young women who are born in Norway are forced to marry cousins who can then come to this country.” She says that in the ninety such forced marriages her group studied, all but three of the brides said they had been raped.
Denmark has been widely criticized for passing a law in 2002 establishing a number of tests for citizens or residents who wish to bring spouses into the country from overseas: Both partners must be at least 24 years old. They must demonstrate that the marriage is voluntary. They must have a certain income and own a residence with at least two rooms. And they must show a stronger connection to Denmark than to any other country. As a result, the number of people from outside the European Union who were allowed to join Danish spouses or other close family members fell from 10,950 in 2001 to 3,835 last year. In November the Netherlands became the first to follow Denmark’s example, raising the age to 21 to qualify for family reunion.
When the Danish measure was proposed, Muslim groups opposed it vigorously. But Storhaug quotes immigrant parents who now say the law has released them from family pressures to use their children as “human visas.” And she says young Muslims can continue their education without fear of being married off. “It’s rubbish to say the Danish policy is racist,” she said. “It’s the best policy for women in Europe.”
Her group, Human Rights Service, is giving Hirsi Ali its “Bellwether of Europe” prize this month. “I think she is doing a great service to democracy and the future, because Islamism is the biggest threat to democracy and to Europe,” she said.