AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk may have brought an abrupt end to the political dreams of two women this week: those of a Somali-born lawmaker — and her own.
On Monday, Verdonk informed Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who gained prominence with her blunt criticism of fundamentalist Islam and for defending the rights of Muslim women, that her citizenship was invalid because she had lied on her asylum application in 1992.
Verdonk, a criminologist and former deputy prison warden, claimed she was simply applying Dutch law. In the past, such refusals to make exceptions have pumped up her polling figures.
But this time it appears to have backfired, jeopardizing her bid to become the country’s first woman prime minister.
After Hirsi Ali announced Tuesday she was quitting parliament and leaving the Netherlands, Verdonk was skewered by political foes and friends alike during a parliament debate lasting into the early hours of Wednesday morning.
She was ridiculed when she claimed she had not known that Hirsi Ali had falsified her name and year of birth, even though the Somali refugee went public with that information four years ago when she was offered a parliament seat.
As Verdonk squirmed in her own defense, parliament adopted one resolution ordering her to reconsider her ruling and another to reprocess Hirsi Ali’s naturalization as quickly as possible if necessary.
Although their paths to power have been radically different, both women are members of the libertarian VVD party, and both became household names in the Netherlands after the murder of their mutual friend, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004.
Verdonk, 50, has been called “Iron Rita” for her merciless enforcement of the government’s strict immigration policies. Her image of tough decisiveness struck a chord among voters, who have been moving to the right for the last four years, especially on the issues of immigration and crime.
She was — until this week — the front-runner to win her party’s leadership battle in internal elections May 31, with a good shot at becoming prime minister in elections a year from now.
Although it might seem strange, both women say they remain friends.
“I’m still crazy about Rita. It would be vicious and opportunistic if I were to think otherwise,” Hirsi Ali told reporters after her tearful resignation announcement. “Verdonk applied the rules the way she read them.”
“Privately, I wish her the best,” Verdonk said of Hirsi Ali during the debate. “It was terrible for me to have to write a letter like that” — informing Hirsi Ali that her naturalization was invalid.
Unlike Verdonk, Hirsi Ali, 36, has been watching her ratings fall and her personal life grow more difficult.
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She wrote the script for Van Gogh’s film “Submission,” which criticized the treatment of women under Islam and offended many Muslims.
Death threats forced her to go into hiding for months in the United States after Van Gogh’s murder by a Muslim radical who is now serving a life sentence. When she returned she was given 24-hour police protection.
Verdonk, too, is under heavy personal security, and has confessed the protection is a burden on her husband and three children.
Verdonk burst onto the national stage the day of Van Gogh’s murder when she addressed thousands of angry, mournful people on Amsterdam’s Dam Square.
“We say: This far, and no further. Stop!” she shouted, to a roar of approval to the crowd. “We say: We will not accept this. This is not the society that we envision.”
As immigration minister since 2003, she tightened rules that had sharply curbed immigration applications, and began deporting a backlog of 26,000 people whose asylum requests had been rejected five or more years ago — measures that proved highly popular.
At times, she displays a softer side and a quick sense of humor. When visiting a mosque, she was told a Muslim priest she was about to meet would refuse to shake her hand — a religious practice she says underscores the failure of many Muslims to accept Dutch norms.
“Well, we’ll have a lot to talk about,” she quipped.
But nothing served her so well as her refusal to bend in high-profile cases.
She denied Ivory Coast-born soccer player Salomon Kalou’s request for fast-track naturalization so he could play for Holland in the World Cup, snubbing an appeal from national coach Marco ban Basten.
She also ordered the deportation of Kosovo-born Taida Pasic, who had lived in the Netherlands since she was 12, a month before graduating high school.
Hirsi Ali said she had pleaded Pasic’s case with the minister. “I said, ‘Rita, come on, please. I lied, too,'” Hirsi Ali said, recalling for The Associated Press last week the conversation that took place two months ago. “And she told me, ‘If I was the minister then, I would also have evicted you.'”
Galen Irwin, Hirsi Ali’s former mentor at Leiden University, said Verdonk’s decision in the Hirsi Ali case was politically motivated.
“Rita Verdonk has party leadership elections to confront, hence the need to show her toughness,” he said. “I think there is plenty of opportunism here.”
An Internet survey by pollster Maurice de Hond released Tuesday found 49 percent agreed with Verdonk’s decision in Hirsi Ali’s case, versus 43 percent who opposed it. De Hond claims a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.