Caught between a rock and her own hard line, the outspoken Ayaan Hirsi Ali is being stripped of her Dutch nationality and has been forced to give up her seat at the Dutch parliament following allegations of identity fraud.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's ride on the anti-immigration and anti-Islamic wave sweeping through Dutch politics has ended with the controversial Somali-born politician, who is best known for her vocal criticism of Islam, being unceremoniously jettisoned by her own party.
The crisis broke on 11 May when Zembla, a Dutch current affairs programme, released a documentary entitled De heilige Ayaan (The holy Ayaan). Although Hirsi Ali has herself admitted in previous interviews that she lied while seeking asylum in the Netherlands, the programme has cast further doubt on the claims she has made about her past.
Hirsi Ali says she lied about her surname – which is actually Hirsi Magan – and her date of birth in her asylum application because she feared that her family would be able to locate her after she had fled an arranged marriage. She also says she claimed she had come directly from war-torn Somalia, rather than after a dozen years of comfortable living in Kenya, because asylum policy is not geared towards domestic abuse.
But Zembla suggested that even this was not entirely true. According to several members of her family, Hirsi Ali was not escaping some anonymous arranged marriage but had actually split from her ex-husband in an amicable divorce. Whether or not these claims are true, opposition politicians seized on the opportunity to push the government to live by its tough asylum policy. After initially trying to defend Hirsi Ali, Integration and Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, who also belongs to the conservative Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy), admitted that “rules are rules” and that Hirsi Ali's Dutch citizenship was invalid. “However fantastic I may think Ayaan is… I have to uphold the law.”
Verdonk, who is in the midst of a campaign for her party's leadership, has built an image of being uncompromising on immigration. In a similar case, an Iraqi family were stripped of their Dutch citizenship after it had been found that they had lied about their names and dates of birth. Since taking office in 2003, Verdonk has worked to raise the fortress walls. She has introduced compulsory ‘integration tests' which gauge a would-be immigrant's knowledge of the Dutch language, political system and social norms before they have even set foot in the country.
Saying she was “saddened but relieved”, Hirsi Ali announced that she was resigning from the lower house and would be moving to the United States in September to take up a job at the influential neo-con think tank the American Enterprise Institute. The affair has split opinion both within and outside the Netherlands. Calling her a “brave woman”, former VVD minister Hans Wiegel said that her departure would not be a loss to the party or the parliament because of her polarising views. In contrast, another former VVD politician, Jozias van Aartsen, said that the situation was “painful for Dutch society and politics”. Meanwhile, the Contact Organisation for Muslims and Government said Hirsi Ali had caused “a lot of damage” and expressed hope that “we can move forward with building a harmonious society”.
In neighbouring Belgium, the liberal VLD party has suggested that Hirsi Ali should be offered asylum by their country, but most Belgians oppose this. Her future boss, Christopher DeMuth, president of the AEI, wrote in a letter: “I have been deeply angered by the unfair and partisan attacks that have been levelled against you and have admired your courage and forthrightness.”
“[Hirsi Ali] has been exposed as the equivalent of such Iraqi exiles as Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawi,” wrote columnist Haroon Siddiqui in Canada's Toronto Star. “She told the stories the Dutch, and many Europeans, craved, to confirm their anti-Muslim prejudices. Like the Iraqi exiles, she knew exactly which buttons to push.”
Indeed, Hirsi Ali's ideological swings and roundabouts, which have taken her from fundamentalist Islam to strident atheism, have been remarkably timely. For instance, in 2002, she abandoned a position with the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, a think tank linked to the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), and defected to the right-wing VVD when they promised her a parliamentary position, which she won in the 2003 elections. She criticised the PvdA for being blind to the “negative effects” of immigration from Islamic countries.
This played well with popular opinion in the Netherlands which has a population of nearly 16.5 million of which nearly 1 million are Muslim immigrants, who suffer disproportionately from the spectre of unemployment due to their marginalisation. An issue of barely concealed concern for years, the gloves of the Islamophobes came off following the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The most prominent was the late Pim Fortuyn, a maverick Dutch right-wing politician who penned a hyperbolic tome entitled Against the Islamisation of our culture. He was gunned down by an animal rights activist in 2002 during the national elections and the party he created, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, went on to win its first victory. However, the party collapsed in acrimony not long afterwards, failing to form a government, and new elections were called the following year.
The VVD party made massive gains by adopting Fortuyn's anti-immigrant platform of which Hirsi Ali was an enthusiastic supporter. She rose to international prominence in 2004, following the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a member of a violent salafist Muslim group. His attacker had been angered by a short film produced by him and written by Hirsi Ali entitled Submission about domestic violence against Muslim women. Hirsi Ali has, herself, received numerous death threats and has been living under 24-hour police guard at a secret location since the murder.
After the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the Netherlands developed “a culture of fear”, according to the popular left-wing historian Geert Mak. Describing Holland as a “small, provincial country”, Mak viewed the response to the murder as a gross overreaction: “We have only one murder and everybody goes crazy.”
This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on 25 May 2006.