Wednesday 17 May 2006
Deborah Orr: How one Muslim woman reveals the paradoxes of feminism and immigration
Hirsi Ali is basically a neo-con, who believes in strong borders and enthusiastic integration
Her political career in the Netherlands had been sudden and stellar. But yesterday it ended in ignominy, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali resigned the parliamentary seat she won in 2003, over allegations that she had lied to get asylum. The immigration minister in Hirsi Ali's own political party, Rita Verdouk, declared that her parliamentary colleague, named last year in Time magazine as one of the world's top 100 influential people, had been "improperly granted citizenship".
The accusations are particularly damaging to her because Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Muslim apostate, is a vociferous critic of what she considers an overly laissez-faire attitude to immigration in her adopted country. Contemptuous of multi-culturalism, yet insistent that Muslims are largely "incapable of integration", she had courted controversy since she launched herself on the political scene. It has now become clear that she knows whereof she speaks. Hirsi Ali says that the Dutch immigration system is wide open to abuse. She has been, it's now clear, a notable beneficiary of the very system she derides.
Since claiming asylum in 1992, when she was categorised as a pretty watertight claimant, Hirsi Ali has earned a degree in political science, published two collections of speeches and essays, and become one of the country's most prominent and charismatic political personalities.
She attracted public attention in the Netherlands in the wake of the gay right-winger Pym Fortune's assassination by an animal rights activist, largely because her own views chimed with his outspoken condemnation of Islam as a "backward" culture. That attention became international when the Theo Van Gogh, director of a film she had scripted, was assassinated by a "home grown" Muslim extremist, Mohammed Bouyeri.
The film, called Submission, told briefly of four Muslim women, who had in various ways been damaged by anti-female Islamic custom, and sought release from "marital bondage". Including images of a woman's body in a diaphanous burqa, with verses from the Koran projected on to it, the short, low-budget film was an intentionally provocative piece directed by a professional Dutch controversialist.
He was warned by Hirsi Ali that he had put himself in danger, but remained obdurate in his refusal to take precautions. Thereby, he made himself an easy target for a young man who would have preferred to take his frustrations out on Hirsi Ali herself. A letter was found attached to Van Gogh's body with a knife, vowing that Hirsi Ali would also be killed. She has lived under 24-hour protection since, campaigning from behind her barricades against forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and the rest of the sorry litany of abuses of women that Islam condones or Muslims practise.
There have been signs that - just as the British started to get narky about protecting Salman Rushdie - the Dutch were tiring of guarding Hirsi Ali. A complaint by a neighbour that Hirsi Ali's residence affected her own security led to a ruling that she should leave her home. When a television documentary began probing the background to her asylum claim - and interviewing her close family - Hirsi Ali decided that enough was enough. She says she was advised by Rushdie that the best way to live with a fatwa is to go and live in the US. It is now reported that she is about to do just that, taking up a post in America with the American Enterprise Institute, the right-wing think-tank that has played a leading role in advising the Bush administration on foreign policy.
The US, she says, has assured her that the immigration irregularities that have caused problems for her in the Netherlands, will create no difficulty in the States. Obviously, this is a function of realpolitik as much as anything else. Hirsi Ali is an international famous neo-con, who believes in strong national borders and enthusiastic integration while at the same time fetishising "freedom" as a way of achieving homogeneity.
Yet there are a number of decent reasons why it could be argued that Hirsi Ali had no choice but to lie in seeking Dutch asylum. Some aspects of her fraudulent claims have been in the public domain since 2002, and have previously caused her little trouble or embarrassment.
Hirsi Ali applied for asylum in the Netherlands, on the grounds that she was fleeing from an arranged marriage. She gave a false name and age, she says, so that her family would not be able to trace her. She claimed also to be fleeing from Somalia, a country she had left at the age of seven, when she had actually arrived from Germany via Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya, where her family had been granted political asylum as her father had been a political opponent of the Somalian president.
Until now, it has been pretty much accepted that she had no choice but to tell these lies, as she feared that her family could otherwise trace her. What turned opinion against her was that television footage of her home in Kenya showed a comfortable middle-class household, while the arranged marriage to a Canadian cousin turned out to be one that her family say would have caused a few rows had it not been honoured, but nothing more than that. In truth, Hirsi Ali is likely to have lied about her name and date of birth so that they could not trace her family, rather than the other way round.
This aspect of her extraordinary tale, therefore, is no less contradictory than any other. The very political discourse that Hirsi Ali herself subscribes to means that such a sympathetic response would be unlikely to await her now. In Britain, for example, even the most savage of threatened brutality against women is not accepted as a reason for claiming asylum, while in the countries often accused of peddling such misery it is often suggested by political leaders that the problem is exaggerated by women lying to get asylum.
The great worry is that this prominent feminist, in capriciously inflating the danger she was being subjected to as a Muslim women, has actually played into the hands of those who claim again and again, on a national and international level, that woman cannot have special protection under the law, because women will lie to take advantage of such foolish kindnesses. We encounter it here with the rape laws, and with Britain's continuing refusal to sign the European Convention on Trafficking. Right now, a feminist campaign exhorts the British government to recognise the most brutal cultural oppressions of women as crimes against humanity.
With her own deceits, Hirsi Ali illustrates exactly why in such circumstances a woman might be tempted to lie - for fear of persecution. But she also, very publicly, hands ammunition to all those who oppose her views on the subjugation of women, and prefer to dismiss us all as manipulative liars who cannot be trusted.
Hirsi Ali is vociferious in her argument that multiculturalism fosters what she calls "the paradox of the left", and excuses vile practices as cultural. Whether her own paradoxes are any more appetising remains to be seen.
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