Hermione Eyre: Not only witnesses need state protection

Hirsi Ali has been in limbo ever since 2006, when she admitted falsifying details on her asylum application
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The Independent Online

"I don't want to die. I want to live and I love life. I'm in a desperate situation," Ayaan Hirsi Ali said this week, addressing law-makers at the European Parliament in an attempt to secure EU funding for the 24-hour personal security she has needed ever since her collaborator Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 by a radical Islamist critical of their short film about women's subjugation under Islam.

Hirsi Ali's appeal was affecting for several reasons. First, that this dignified woman should have to make it at all; second because it was made so straightforwardly, using the same distinctive tone of emotive lucidity that made her autobiography, Infidel, an international bestseller; third, because it represented a chance for the EU to do something really useful.

Hirsi Ali has been in limbo ever since 2006 when she admitted to falsifying details on her asylum application to the Netherlands. A bitter national row broke out; the fact that she was a former Dutch MP making the issue painfully politicised. Her nationality was temporarily revoked, and her neighbours sued her for endangering them. She moved to America to work for a think tank, and, since she was no longer resident in Holland, her protection was withdrawn.

Since then, attempts to fund her security have been vexed. An informal online petition asking America to pay for her security has gathered 2,068 signatures to date, but without success. She has attempted to raise funds herself, but describes with characteristic eloquence the vortex she has found herself in: "It has become swiftly apparent that the best I can do is raise enough money to pay for the security detail that accompanies me to fundraising meetings."

This self-sustaining cycle must be particularly depressing trap for a former politician and feminist campaigner more accustomed to expending her energy raising funds and awareness for bigger causes than her own protection.

At a distance, it is hard to imagine the strain this lifestyle puts upon Hirsi Ali. But I felt a shiver of it when I attended a debate she participated in late last year in Westminster. The security issue was already to the fore. Details of the location of the debate were revealed only to a named guest list, on the day of the talk.

As the assembled audience hushed, the chair Douglas Murray got up to speak. Instead of introducing the panel, he made like an air steward: in case of emergency, the fire exits are to be found to your left, and at the back, et cetera et cetera. For one cowardly moment I wondered if I should have played it safe and stayed at home that evening.

But, of course, every second you spend thinking that way is a second you have lost to the extremists that would suppress Hirsi Ali. If she can risk everything by arguing her case for secularism, and for the emancipation of women from practices such as arranged marriage and female genital mutilation, then the least I could do was to turn up to hear her speak one night. There I felt a quick crackle of the electric fear that must constantly surround her.

Not that she showed it. Her demeanour was entirely calm, her speech syntactically precise in a polyglot way that made me think of Conrad. (Of the war on terror she pronounced, languidly: "You cannot declare war on a tactic.") Her only sign of nerves was an occasional quick flicker of her eyes to the back of the hall.

Recent reports of her appeal for funding might make it sound, to the uninitiated, as if Ayaan Hirsi Ali were a burden. In fact she has much to contribute to political discourse and her simple clarity of expression makes her an expert communicator. Without funding she will be confined to hiding.

It would be a pity if security funding were to extend to costly witness protection schemes but not to this bold political writer and speaker. Because she has lived in so many different countries – Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Holland, the US – she is in a unique position to comment culturally.

But it is exactly this internationalism that makes her security protection such a fraught issue. She is an exceptional case, and deserves exceptional treatment, and the setting up of a limited EU fund to protect her liberty seems warranted, and could set a precedent for writers: Orhan Pamuk has been named. It is heartening to see France's politicians rally round her – this week Rama Yade described her as "a Voltaire of modern times" – but the EU backing would usefully limit the politicisation of her cause.

She deserves more than to become a political mascot for Nicolas Sarkozy. Whatever happens, I hope for her safety. I recently saw, in an obscure magazine, under a list of Good Things That Happened in 2007, "Ayaan Hirsi Ali stayed alive". Let us hope her name works for her. It means "lucky" in Somali.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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