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It doesn't compute at first.
This tall, slender, infinitely soft-spoken woman the target of ongoing death threats? In what world would that be?
This one, as it happens. Even here and now, an autumn morning in Toronto, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not without bodyguards, discreet but ever vigilant, a constant presence in her life.
How long will that go on?
"For as long as there are people who want to kill me," she says softly.
The former Dutch MP, a once-devout Muslim, has made a virtue out of necessity. The guards, she says, ensure she can still speak out freely, though yes, oh yes, she knows it further stokes the fury of "them" — the Muslim fundamentalists, Dutch and otherwise, who want to silence her, permanently.
Not to mention her multiple non-Muslim critics who wish she would just shut up, at least on the other touchy subject that consumes her: multiculturalism.
The Somali-born Hirsi Ali, 36, who resigned in May from the Dutch parliament and now works at a neo-con Washington think-tank, refuses to be silenced on either topic. During an interview the day after speaking at the Grano dinner series this week, she launches a full-blown assault on Islam's incompatibility with the open societies of the West.
"The basic tenets of Islam and the basic tenets of the rule of law are mutually exclusive," she says.
Nor does being in famously multicultural Canada curb her other view: that the West is dangerously naïve in appeasing Muslim groups who won't accept its laws as primary; who won't, in particular, put an end to their oppression of women.
She supports diversity, but says "what the West has to do is ensure that Muslims living here understand they are citizens of the country first and foremost. They must know they enjoy a precious right of freedom of religion, but that freedom entails accepting the constitution of the country."
Hirsi Ali silenced? Even for her own good? Not a chance.
"The West is already so silenced," she says, shaking her head. She will not be intimidated into following suit.
"There are moments when I think, oh, the Islamists could get to me. For 1,400 years they've killed people who think like me. But we are rational beings and I always fall back on reason. I could die today or in 100 years. I don't allow myself to live in fear."
The death threats began in 2002 after Hirsi Ali, then a researcher for the Dutch Labour Party, told a radio interviewer the following: While being Muslim would always be part of her heritage and identity, she no longer was a believer — "in God and angels and heaven and hell" — but was now an atheist.
Already regarded as blasphemous for publicly calling the Prophet Muhammad a "tyrant" and condemning the Islamic body of laws called sharia, Hirsi Ali's atheist remark was the tipping point. It branded her an "apostate," guaranteeing that Muslim extremists would feel Qur'an-bound to try to kill her. She has had round-the-clock security from that day to this.
It hardly makes her unique, she says. The Jewish mayor of Amsterdam and his Muslim deputy, as well as several other politicians, are also protected by police from Islamist attackers.
Hirsi Ali's friend, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, didn't, however, have the same state-supplied safeguards. In 2004, the two collaborated on a short film for Dutch public television called Submission. In it, a Muslim woman is forced into an arranged marriage, abused by her husband, raped by her uncle, then brutally punished for adultery. Her body, visible through transparent garments, showed painted verses from the Qur'an.
That November, riding his bicycle on the way to work, van Gogh was shot eight times. The assassin, a Dutch-born Muslim of Moroccan descent, slit his throat to the spine with one knife, and pinned a letter to his chest with another.
It made clear van Gogh was just a proxy for Hirsi Ali. She had "unleashed a boomerang and it's just a matter of time before this boomerang will seal your destiny. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you will break yourself into pieces on Islam."
The journey to that horrific point in her life was a long and circuitous one.
Her father — a Sunni intellectual educated at Columbia University who returned to become a resistance fighter in then-communist Somalia — was often away during her childhood. Her mother was illiterate. During one of her father's absences, her grandmother, against his wishes, had the 5-year-old girl ritually circumcised.
A year later, the family went into exile, first in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, then, for 10 years, Kenya. At a Muslim girls' high school in Nairobi, Hirsi Ali, whose religious devotions had been casual, came increasingly under the sway of a Shia teacher. By age 16, she was dressing in full hijab, praying five times a day and learning to parrot the teacher's views, she says.
"Though I knew nothing about them, I learned to hate Jews day in, day out. We were told that if they could be eliminated all our problems would be solved."
In 1989, when Iran issued a fatwa on novelist Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, the devout Hirsi Ali went along with it: "Yes, I wished for his death." (She told him this when years later they met.)
At the same time, however, she was taking a class in logic. Gradually, she says she decided that Islam, based on submission to God, was a "huge contradiction of reason. I felt all sorts of doubts but couldn't act on them."
At least not yet.
In 1992, when she was 22, her father arranged for her marriage to a distant cousin in Canada whom she had never met. She refused to attend the ceremony. The family signed the documents anyway.
Passing through Germany en route to Canada, she spontaneously decided to flee, taking a train to Amsterdam and applying for asylum. She told officials she'd come directly from war-torn Somalia, knowing it would facilitate a refugee claim.
To stop her family tracking her down, she also gave a fake name (her real one is Hirsi Magan) and age. (Those lies, which she has long since admitted, came back to haunt her this year, leading indirectly to her decision to resign from parliament.)
After working as a factory cleaner and learning Dutch, she became a translator for other Somali women involved with Dutch social services. It was an eye-opener. Many were victims of forced marriages who'd been abused by their husbands. Some were infected with AIDS, though they thought Muslims couldn't contract this "non-believers" disease.
In 2000, after studying political science at Leiden University, Hirsi Ali began to do research on immigration for the left-wing, multiculturalist Labour Party. Almost 1 million Muslims, mainly from Morocco and Turkey, had migrated to the Netherlands in the previous 20 years, giving the small country one of the highest concentrations in Europe. What were the implications?
The party was stunned when her report recommended a halt on immigration and the closing of all 41 Islamic schools. "Do you have Islamic schools in Canada?" she asks. Yes, dozens of them. "Ban them."
The centre-right Liberal Party, however, asked Hirsi Ali to run in the 2003 election. She won, and for the next three years, tackling laws on forced marriages and honour killings, she became a lightning rod for the fierce emotions ignited after 9/11.
Muslim extremists became Hirsi Ali's sworn enemy, but moderate Muslim critics say she paints too broad and toxic a picture of Islam. She fails to distinguish between the faith and ideological distortions of it. She goes too far.
"Muslims are locked in this mindset of submission, with women subordinate to men," she counters. "But only if you are free as an individual can you take responsibility for what you do and how you behave, and we Muslims are not free as individuals. We can only be part of the collective, the ummah."
Her rejection of the faith shouldn't preclude her speaking out: "I'm a Muslim atheist. When I see things going wrong in my community — those with whom I share a history — I have an obligation to make it known and challenge it."
Appalled, for instance, to learn Ontario was about to allow sharia to be used in family arbitration, she flew over last year to join local Muslim women in a successful fight against it. But it's an ongoing issue, she says, in Europe, and it horrifies her.
"Sharia would create a completely different society that is in competition with the state. When its supporters say `It will happen anyway,' take the warning very, very seriously."
This year, Hirsi Ali published her second book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Declaration for Women and Islam. Next February, her autobiography will appear, provocatively titled The Infidel ("well, that's what they call me").
She remains emotionally attached to Holland, she says, and flies home for a week every month. Otherwise, she's either speaking or writing at the American Enterprise Institute ("which isn't as conservative as people think"), or trying, and usually failing, to find time for "the pleasures of life — to see a movie, read a book, go to a museum, take a walk."
Always with bodyguards in tow. The reality of the danger around her is ever present and will hardly lessen when she completes, as she fully intends to, a second short film, Submission II. This one will examine the oppression of Muslim men and centre on a gay man and an anti-Semite.
Isn't she nervous about the predictable response?
"I'm not fearless," she laughs. "But the philosopher Karl Popper has influenced me a lot and he said we all have an obligation to be optimistic."
Against all odds, Hirsi Ali is.[/b]
I have read about this woman before and I think she is incredible and brave. She has overcome so many obstacles in her life.