October 9, 2007

Courage, Personified

Aayan Hirsi Ali is the modern face of courage and enlightenment. The political leaders of the Netherlands, by contrast, are proving themselves to be craven and short-sighted.

A quick biography: Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, the daughter of a politician, who was jailed for opposition to the military dictatorship there. He escaped from prison and fled with his family to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, and then Kenya. Taught in Kenya by a madrassa-trained Islamic fundamentalist, in her youth she sympathized with Muslim extremists, but she also read Nancy Drew stories and was impressed with the possibilities of what a smart young woman with freedom could accomplish.

In 1992, she says that she resisted her father's attempts to force her in to an arranged marriage, and sought asylum in Holland. Her family has denied this version of events, but somehow she eventually naturalized into the Netherlands. She initially worked as a maid there, but after she learned Dutch, her fluency in six languages became marketable and she became a translator servicing the substantial Somali expatriate and refugee population in the Netherlands.

She eventually went to college at Leiden University and obtained a Master's degree in political science. She was pursuing early-stage doctoral studies on 9/11, and shortly thereafter looked for Osama bin Laden's "words of justification" in the Koran, and was unimpressed. Shortly thereafter, she abandoned her faith altogether and now describes herself as an atheist. Despite the powerful moral problems of 9/11, she describes the revelation of her nonbelief coming more prosaically, as she drank a glass of wine: "...I asked myself: Why should I burn in hell just because I'm drinking this? But what prompted me even more was the fact that the killers of 9/11 all believed in the same God I believed in." (To me, this rings true -- as a former Catholic, I actually found it easier to confront the misguided and horrific acts of the Inquisition or the various Crusades, great historical evils, than with the claim that God actually cared enough about me touching myself -- something that obviously would not hurt anyone at all -- that He would condemn me to eternal damnation.) However, she does also continue to call herself a "Muslim," likely referring to her ancestry, culture of origination, and personal identity rather than as a statement of her faith.

Hirsi Ali entered politics and became elected to the Dutch Parliament. She also became friends with, and a collaborator of, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. They jointly created a movie critical of the manner in which Muslim culture represses women. Van Gogh, a descendant of the famous painter, was murdered and nearly decapitated in Amsterdam on November 2, 2004. A note threatening the life of Hirsi Ali was found attached to a knife plunged into Van Gogh's body. Since Van Gogh's murder, she was under police protection because of the threats on her life.

Eventually, at the suggestion of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, she went to the United States, where she has since obtained a green card and lives in seclusion. Despite the ongoing threats on her life, she has found a position with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and published two books, one a polemic criticism of Islam and the other an autobiography. She is working on another book in which she fictionalizes a visit by the prophet Muhammed to the New York Public Library and he confronts the writings of Enlightenment authors, which I would be very interested in reading.

She writes eloquently and powerfully, openly criticizes the religion of people who have tried to kill her, has rebelled against a repressive culture, and attained no small measure of personal enlightenment.

The Dutch government has withdrawn its protection of her, despite the fact that death threats against her continue. Nevertheless, she has vowed to continue her work.

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