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Shaking Pillars of Islam

A Somali-born Dutch lawmaker is the target of extremists in Europe for insisting that abuse of Muslim women isn't on just the religion's fringe.

November 07, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

THE HAGUE — 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.

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