AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Former Dutch lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali has stood at the white-hot center of the debate on Islam in Europe. She bluntly urged Muslim women to throw off their veils, and angered Muslims by linking Islam with terrorism.
Yet she earned no praise from the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim right, nor from the women she tried to defend. They found her abrasive and a troublemaker. While Muslim extremists called her a heretic and wanted her dead, the average Muslim woman wanted her to just go away.
After her political career was derailed this week by an exposed lie on her asylum application, the Somali-born firebrand has been silenced, confined by her lawyers to her well-guarded apartment in The Hague.
But around Europe her case resonates with common issues: how to accommodate an assertive Muslim minority, how to meld different cultures into the European context; and whether Islam — as Hirsi Ali suggested — can be reformed from within.
She rose to prominence in Holland amid the European backlash over the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Dutch Muslims — 6 percent of the population — were blamed for rising crime and failing to integrate into their adopted countries.
A Muslim who renounced Islam, Hirsi Ali went farther than most. She called Islam a backward religion and Mohammed a “tyrant” by modern standards.
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Submission was a fictional study of abused Muslim women, with scenes of near-naked women with Quranic texts engraved on their flesh.
Muslims called it blasphemous, but Hirsi Ali said the film gave voice to her dream of an Islamic Age of Enlightenment.
“If we Muslims learn to think differently and instead of total submission move to a moral concept of dialogue with God … in my eyes that would be a first step toward emancipation,” she told The Associated Press last month in one of her last interviews before her resignation.
Most native Dutch could hardly disagree. But her confrontational manner rankled in a nation used to dealing with issues through quiet, reasoned and often lengthy debate until consensus is reached.
“She certainly was provocative, more than this society is accustomed to,” said Galen Irwin, an American professor of political science at Leiden University, who has lived in the Netherlands for three decades and taught Hirsi Ali soon after she arrived in the country in 1992.
“She was more abrasive than many people here were ready for, but it’s hard to see how things can change if no one stands up and says they must change — even if that’s not very Dutch,” he said.
Hirsi Ali quit parliament Tuesday after Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk — a friend and political ally — said her 1997 naturalization was invalid because she gave a false name when she moved to the Netherlands, escaping an arranged marriage and fearing reprisals from her family.
Hirsi Ali, 36, acknowledged her real name was Ayaan Hirsi Magan, that she had lied about her age and had not told the authorities she had lived in three countries since leaving Somalia. But she reminded the nation that she had confessed to the lies years ago, both in public and to her party which offered her a parliament seat anyway.
While sympathy for Hirsi Ali swelled after her teary farewell address Tuesday, opinion surveys reveal that the Dutch are deeply divided.
According to a snap poll released Wednesday by pollster Maurice de Hond, 60 percent said her departure was not a loss for Dutch politics. Asked whether it was right that she be stripped of her citizenship, 49 percent said yes, and 43 percent said no. The internet poll carries a 3 percent margin of error.
“Is she the first immigrant to lie on her application? I’m ashamed of my country,” said Lara Clarkson, a woman of Dutch-Indonesian descent who said it was wrong to strip Hirsi Ali of her passport.
“She was too big for the Netherlands, too ambiguous to be pigeonholed,” said Clarkson. “She gave a good kick to things that were rusted into place. In 20 years, people may look back and say: ‘man, she saw it all so clearly’.”
She was reviled by Muslims, a hatred that seeped into the generation of schoolchildren who hiss when she appears on television in school. In the playgrounds in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, she is sometimes referred to as “that black witch.”
“She has done more harm to us, worsened our position more than anything else I can think of,” said Rita Joosten, an activist with advocacy groups for immigrant women.
Joosten said that while women’s groups are opposed to female circumcision and domestic violence — issues that Hirsi Ali put on the agenda — she had linked those problems with Islam, whether she intended to or not.
“That has contributed to an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ where it’s Islam that’s backward and Islam that needs to reform.”
Joosten said that, in her circles, most women consider Hirsi Ali an unwitting pawn of the far right, noting that she has been offered a job with a conservative think tank in Washington, the American Enterprise Institute.
Irwin said that most Dutch politicians, while criticizing Verdonk publicly for her decision, were privately celebrating Hirsi Ali’s downfall.
“I imagine most people in The Hague will be glad to see her go. She was a pain. She didn’t conform to the rules of her party, or to control of any kind,” he said.
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