Romance for British historian Niall Ferguson

Right-wing circles are transfixed by the relationship between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the neoconservative historian Niall Ferguson
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The Independent Online

The Time Magazine gala held in New York's Lincoln Centre last May was always going to be a high-octane affair. Billed as a celebration of The 100 Most Influential People in the World, it was a chance for the globe's intellectual and political glitterati to rub shoulders while making small talk about geo-politics and contemporary literature.

Response from lawyers for Niall Ferguson and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

But amid the mingling of eminent grey matter – guests included Barack Obama's speechwriter and Oprah Winfrey – there was also a crackling of mutual physical attraction between two glamorous invitees with a shared taste for conservative politics and speaking their minds.

Yesterday, the affair sparked that night between the British historian and television presenter Niall Ferguson and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born feminist whose criticism of Islam provoked a fatwa which has left her living under police protection since 2004, was revealed – along with the news that the millionaire academic is to divorce his wife of 16 years.

Friends of the 45-year-old Harvard professor, whose books, media activities and work in high finance have made him one of the world's most bankable intellectuals with an estimated income of £5m a year, confirmed that he has left the former Fleet Street editor Susan Douglas and their three children for Ms Hirsi Ali.

A close friend of the former editor of the Sunday Express said that the split was due to Professor Ferguson "conducting a private life in a manner more akin to that of a Premiership footballer than a professor".

The transatlantic split will have ramifications in Britain, where together the celebrity academic and Ms Douglas, who is seven years older than her husband, had formed one of the power couples in London's rejuvenated right-wing salons.

Ms Douglas is a close friend of David Cameron and a prominent name on the Conservatives' "A-list" of aspiring parliamentary candidates. Professor Ferguson, who flirted extensively with America's neocons before recently describing himself as a "liberal fundamentalist", is an unofficial adviser to Mr Cameron and has a seat on the board of the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies, one of the Tories' think-tanks of choice.

The relationship between the academic and Ms Hirsi Ali, 40, a lawyer and a Dutch MP until she resigned over allegations that she had lied to obtain citizenship in the Netherlands, had been an open secret in the couple's high-powered social circuit in America. They were seen kissing last month at a literary festival in India.

The result is one of the more intriguing pairings in right-wing politics on either side of the Atlantic. Ms Hirsi Ali, who works as a fellow of the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, established herself as a convinced and strident critic of Islam in the wake of 9/11 attacks and has compared the religion to Nazism for its attitude towards women. She has regularly accused the West of appeasing radical Muslims. Her opposition was undimmed by the aftermath of her decision to write the script for Submission, a controversial film that criticised Islam made by the Dutch director Theo van Gogh, who was shot dead in an Amsterdam street in 2004 before having his throat slit. His murderer left a death threat against Ms Hirsi Ali pinned to his chest.

The lawyer, who suffered female circumcision as a child and campaigns vigorously against the continuing practice, has lived under police protection ever since, first in the Netherlands and now in America, where she lives on the east coast under constant armed guard.

The mutual friend who introduced the couple at the Time magazine party, where Professor Ferguson was photographed with his arm around Ms Hirsi Ali, who was dressed in a striking cocktail dress, confirmed that the threat from extremists cast a shadow over the outspoken feminist's life. Belinda Luscombe, art editor of Time, told The Mail on Sunday: "In all the years I have known Ayaan, she's never had a boyfriend. She's gorgeous, but with a fatwa, it's tricky to find guys."

The split between Professor Ferguson, who is the biographer of Henry Kissinger, and Ms Douglas, who supported her husband with her high-flying media career while he was establishing his academic reputation, is likely to produce one of the more spectacular divorce proceedings of the year. The couple, who have two teenage sons and a daughter, own three homes in Britain and America and are understood to be consulting lawyers.

Professor Ferguson, who received a £500,000 advance for his latest book, Empire and Colossus, is an authority on economic and financial history, and has delivered talks to hedge funds for $100,000 (£63,000) an hour. Ms Douglas, who is thought to be a strong contender for the safe Tory seat of Stratford-upon-Avon at the general election, could claim she is entitled to half of her husband's fortune.

A confidante of Ms Douglas said: "It just seems sad that despite all the lessons of history, Niall has set himself off in pursuit of some liberal idea of individual freedom and appears hellbent on breaking up his family. God knows how Ayaan thinks her feminist views square with her current conduct with Niall."

The 13-year marriage had survived previous traumas, including a riding accident in 2006 which left Ms Douglas with life-threatening injuries. Professor Ferguson returned to their Oxfordshire home from a book tour to help look after his wife, to whom he dedicated his book Ascent of Money, with the words: "In the time that this book was written, my wife Susan fought her way back from a severe accident and other reverses. To her and to our children, I owe the biggest debt."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Life under a fatwa

*Already an outspoken critic of Islam and on the run from her family (who wanted an arranged marriage for her), Ayaan Hirsi Ali was no stranger to threats to her safety in 2004. But it was the murder that year of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh which highlighted how the Somali-born Dutch MP was under a fatwa.

Van Gogh, 47, had turned Hirsi Ali's ideas into the short film Submission about the mistreatment of women in Islam. He was shot in the street and a death threat to Hirsi Ali was stuck in his body with a knife.

She immediately went into hiding, with the Dutch government moving her between different safe houses before taking her to America. She returned to the Netherlands and to her parliamentary work in 2005, and was given a secure house. But her neighbours complained that her presence was a security threat to them, and in 2006 she resigned and moved back to the US. The Dutch government said that it would no longer pay the £2.5m a year cost of her round-the-clock security if she stayed abroad.

With her safety in the US in doubt, a group of friends and sympathisers set up the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Security Trust to raise money to pay for her protection, which is thought to include an armoured car and two bodyguards.

Hirsi Ali, who now works for the right-wing think-tank the American Enterprise Unit, then helped to set up the Foundation for Freedom of Expression, a charitable trust, which raises funds to pay for security for her and other Islamic dissidents.

Luke Blackall