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Daughter of the Enlightenment
A profile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a truly remarkable and corageous woman.
Daughter of the Enlightenment
By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Published: April 3, 2005
Last spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali took her ''Dutch mother'' -- the woman who taught her the language and cared for her after she arrived in the Netherlands as a refugee in 1992 -- to lunch at the Dudok brasserie, near the Parliament in The Hague. As always, Hirsi Ali's armed security detail was there. They have been her companions since she started receiving death threats in September 2002. Hirsi Ali, who was born in Somalia and has been a member of the Dutch Parliament since January 2003, had endorsed the view that Islam is a backward religion, condemned the way women live under it and said that by today's standards, the prophet Muhammad would be considered a perverse tyrant. She had also announced that she was no longer a believing Muslim. The punishment for such apostasy is, according to strict interpretations of Islam, death. That day at the Dudok, several dozen vocational students were taking up the main restaurant, so she and her guards parked at two tables near the bar. Hirsi Ali had her back to the restaurant when one of the students, apparently a Dutch convert to Islam, tapped her on the shoulder. ''I turned around,'' she recalls in her elegant English, ''and saw this sweet, young Dutch guy, about 24 years old. With freckles! And he was like, 'Madam, I hope the mujahedeen get you and kill you.' '' Hirsi Ali handed him her knife and told him, ''Why don't you do it yourself?''
The story is, like much in Hirsi Ali's life, an inseparable mix of the terrifying and the tender. Sipping tea and nibbling from a bowl of chocolate-covered raisins in a house in the Dutch countryside in February, she made every attempt to soft-pedal it. ''Nothing nonverbal about him was violent -- and it wasn't a real knife,'' she told me. ''Just for bread and butter.'' Now as then, her armed guards were along. It had been dark for several hours and they'd positioned their bulletproof vehicles as inconspicuously as possible along the street. She was doing her best to ignore them.
Hirsi Ali is self-effacing and slight. Relaxing on a sofa, she had folded herself into so small a shape that she seemed to disappear behind the throw pillow that she hugged to her knees. Every few minutes she pulled a thick, black woolen shawl around her shoulders and clutched it close under her chin against the cold. Because her voice is soft, she can seem meek. She is not. Hirsi Ali has a calm and syllogistic way of dropping verbal bombs all over the place, using words European politicians never do: Decadent. Corrupt. Cowardly. Wrong.
Dutch voters have an increasing appetite for such talk. Sept. 11 raised worries all over Europe about whether Islam -- the faith of some 20 million on the Continent -- was compatible with the West's open societies. With the 2002 murder of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn and the slaying last fall of the director Theo van Gogh, the Netherlands, arguably the most open society of all, has become reacquainted with political violence. Hirsi Ali, a politician who has thought hard about these issues in her own life, has emerged as perhaps the country's best-known politician and certainly its most imperiled. ''It makes me feel dizzy,'' she told me. ''I've discovered my strong side and my weak side. I'm enriched, and I'm scared.''
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