Europeans politicians and writers living under death threat - many coming to the U.S.
May 17, 2006
Islamist Threats To Dutch Politician Bring Chill at Home
Ms. Hirsi Ali Quits Parliament, Plans to Resettle in U.S. After Losing Safe House
A Debate Over Extremism
By ANDREW HIGGINS
THE HAGUE -- Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been threatened repeatedly with "execution" by Islamist extremists. She lives in an apartment with bulletproof windows, and is driven to work at the Dutch Parliament by armed guards, who vary the route to outfox would-be hit men.
But an unexpected menace emerged closer to home: her own neighbors. They have fought to evict her, complaining that the presence of a well-known terrorist target in their luxury apartment tower in this Dutch city has upset their family lives and reduced the value of their property.
"Once this lady leaves, the problem is no longer there," says Ger Verhagen, a retired executive who owns a place two floors above the hunted politician. He says he has nothing personal against Ms. Hirsi Ali. But along with other residents, he wants to banish the fears stirred by the proximity of Holland 's most acid -- and most frequently threatened -- critic of Islam.
Yesterday, Ms. Hirsi Ali 's neighbor got his wish. Three weeks after a Dutch court ordered her out of the building in response to complaints from Mr. Verhagen and other residents, she resigned from Parliament and said she would leave Holland altogether. Her decision follows a cascade of problems: angry neighbors, a government threat to revoke her citizenship and, more generally, growing public disenchantment with her denunciations of both radical Islam and more conventional Muslim doctrines.
The travails of Ms. Hirsi Ali, 36 years old, raise questions about how Europe, seeking calm rather than confrontation, is grappling with the challenges posed by Islamic extremism in its midst. Born in Somalia and raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya , Ms. Hirsi Ali says the attitude of her neighbors smacks of World War II-style "appeasement." Others say they sympathize with her predicament but fault her for polarizing society with her attacks on Islamic custom as backward and incompatible with Western values.
In late April, a court in The Hague gave Ms. Hirsi Ali four months to vacate her apartment. Her departure, judges ruled, was necessary to protect the "human rights" of her fearful neighbors. The Dutch state, which owns the apartment and charges her about $1,500 a month in rent, has appealed the decision. Announcing the end of her career in Dutch politics yesterday, she cited the ruling as the direct cause. "It is difficult to work as a parliamentarian if you have nowhere to live," she said.
Before her announcement, which touched off a political firestorm, the eviction order had stirred little public outrage. On state television last week, a satirical talk-show host joked about it, asking a guest -- the Dutch lawyer of an Islamist militant who killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 -- whether Ms. Hirsi Ali would be safest living in a mosque, at Guantanamo Bay or "six feet under in a garden." The audience roared with laughter.
Ms. Hirsi Ali, who gave a speech in Berlin earlier this year entitled "The Right to Offend," lamented her eviction as a triumph of self-interest over solidarity. In a trademark flash of provocation, she says it could even shed light on the debate "over what people did during the Second World War." She says caustically: "My neighbors seem to confirm the critical view that very few Dutch people were brave enough" during the Nazi occupation.
Many Europeans initially rallied to President George W. Bush 's "with-us-or-against-us" approach to combating extremism after the bombings in Madrid in early 2004 and the subsequent murder in Amsterdam of Mr. van Gogh, the filmmaker. Since then, however, this united front has narrowed in many parts of Europe to a populist battle against immigration. Some now see Islamist violence and the ideology that fuels it as a threat that can be tamed, or at least kept at a distance, by avoiding provocation.
Although Ms. Hirsi Ali has not yet specified what she will do next, a spokesman for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington , said yesterday that she "has been offered the position of resident fellow." A colleague of Ms. Hirsi Ali 's said she intends to accept the position and move to the U.S. later this year.
Earlier this month, she joined Vice President Dick Cheney and others in Philadelphia to honor Bernard Lewis, the British-born scholar who coined the phrase "clash of civilizations" and helped shape White House thinking about the Middle East after 9/11. She also spoke at Harvard University and the New York Public Library.
When she returned to Holland last weekend, Ms. Hirsi Ali received a different reception -- a stormy debate over whether she should be stripped of her Dutch citizenship and deported. The clamor followed a documentary broadcast last week in which she expanded upon an earlier admission that she had lied on a 1992 application for refugee status. Ms. Hirsi Ali said yesterday that the country 's immigration minister, a nominal ally, had told her Monday that her passport, granted in 1997, would be annulled.
Many Dutch consider her brave but disruptive and too confrontational. She had worked closely with the controversial Mr. van Gogh before his murder, writing and narrating his last film, "Submission," which infuriated Muslims and which many non-Muslims considered gratuitously offensive. A polemic against Islamic attitudes toward women, the short film featured semi-naked actresses, with passages from the Quran scrawled on their bodies.
She clashed recently with a leader of her own center-right Liberal Party, whom she branded a "reactionary," and has been pilloried by politicians on the left, who mock her fury but fear her tart tongue. Many moderate Muslims detest her; radicals want her dead.
"She spits in the face of all Muslims," says Jan Schoonenboom, the head of a government-sponsored research project on Islam. He says he regrets the eviction campaign but says she 's partly to blame for stirring Muslim anger. In April, his think tank, the Scientific Council for Government Policy, issued a report that found no fundamental clash between Islamic and Western values and condemned a "climate of confrontation and stereotypical thinking." The Council, which helps set Dutch policy, urged Holland and other European countries to reach out to Islamist groups abroad that have been involved in terrorism, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
"They 're just sticking their heads in the sand," responds Ms. Hirsi Ali, who dismisses the report as a "political pamphlet to suit the dreams of people who want to believe there is not a problem."
Across Europe, dozens of people are now in hiding or under police protection because of threats from Muslim extremists. Dutch police say politicians reported 121 death threats last year. The number this year will likely be much higher. Geert Wilders, a right-wing member of parliament who also lives in a high-security apartment owned by the state, says he has received 120 menacing emails and letters since January. One of the latest reads: "Oh you cursed infidel! Don 't think you are safe from our mighty organization....It is our wish to kill you by decapitation. Your infidel blood will flow freely on cursed Dutch streets!"
In Germany, several researchers, journalists and members of Parliament receive police protection because of threats by radical Muslims. Hans-Peter Raddatz, an Islamic-studies expert under police protection, recently moved to the U.S.
Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, is also mulling a move to America , at the urging of friends and security contacts. He set off a global storm by publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Twelve Danish cartoonists who drew the caricatures are staying out of public for fear of attack.
Mr. Rose complains that Europe is going wobbly. At the height of the cartoon furor in February, Danish businessmen who criticized their publication were denounced as traitors to free speech. Since then, a segment of the public, eager for a return to calm, has favored a more conciliatory approach toward Muslim anger, Mr. Rose says.
"I think it is very dangerous to give in to intimidation, because it sends a signal: If you threaten enough, we will do as you please," says Mr. Rose.
The U.S. has sometimes sent mixed signals as well. During the cartoon uproar, Washington at first denounced the drawings. As the violence grew, it stressed the importance of free speech.
Determining how to respond to radical Islam "is the key culture war in Europe," Mr. Rose contends. "This will be the big issue for decades." Europe 's large Muslim population has been largely ghettoized. Finding solutions, he says, involves such prickly questions as how to reform welfare systems and how best to absorb immigrants.
Ms. Hirsi Ali first got police protection in 2002 and then went into hiding in November 2004, following the murder in Amsterdam of Mr. van Gogh by a second-generation Dutchman of Moroccan descent. The killer plunged into Mr. van Gogh 's chest a long knife, which pinned to the corpse a rambling and venomous note addressed to Ms. Hirsi Ali. It vowed that she, too, would die.
Raised as a devout Muslim, Ms. Hirsi Ali renounced her faith after arriving in Holland and now calls herself a "Muslim atheist." She says she fled here to escape a forced marriage to a distant relative living in Canada.
Her past, she says, allows her to understand what drives the murderous passions of those who want her dead. As a youth, she says, she supported calls by Iran 's Ayatollah Khomeini for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," a novel she then judged blasphemous.
Fearing for their lives after Mr. van Gogh 's murder, Ms. Hirsi Ali and Mr. Wilders, her fellow legislator, shuttled between army barracks, other state installations and the homes of friends and supporters abroad. As the threats continued, the Dutch government began scouting for private properties in which to safely house them. For Ms. Hirsi Ali, it purchased a spacious apartment for more than $1.1 million. The Dutch counterterrorism agency installed bulletproof glass, alarms and other devices.
Her "high-security residence" was supposed to be a secret. Mr. Verhagen, the retired businessman, says he suspected something was afoot when the apartment 's previous owner announced gleefully that he 'd sold his property, but said he couldn 't reveal the new owner 's identity.
In April 2005, Ms. Hirsi Ali moved in. She rejoiced in having a home again. "I brought furniture. I set up my desk and my computer. I started to cook again for the first time since the murder," she says.
She also started work on a sequel to "Submission," the film she 'd made with Mr. van Gogh and that many blamed for his death. The new movie, which has not yet been shown, takes aim at the treatment of homosexuals in Islamic society.
Ms. Hirsi Ali 's new neighbors, meanwhile, started to panic. They complained about security guards blocking the elevator and harassing visitors, and about traffic snarls whenever Ms. Hirsi Ali and her security escorts entered their underground parking garage. At a meeting in April last year with a counterterrorism official in a hotel, they angrily criticized the government for bringing danger into their lives and demanded that independent experts review the risk of having Ms. Hirsi Ali as a neighbor.
When the government refused to budge, the apartment owners hired a lawyer. A second meeting failed to resolve the standoff. The owners hired security consultants at the Dutch branch of accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP to assess whether Ms. Hirsi Ali might put them all in danger.
News of Ms. Hirsi Ali 's arrival spread. Dick van Tetterode, a retired doctor who lives in an adjacent building, says he worried briefly about bombs, but decided he 'd probably lose only his windows.
During a slow afternoon stroll outside Ms. Hirsi Ali 's building, the 84-year-old doctor reflected on her predicament and on his own flight from the Nazis during World War II. A student at the time, he spent two years hiding on a Dutch farm. Two of the three people he credits with saving his life were killed by the Germans. Struggling to hold back tears, he says he regrets never thanking their children properly for their fathers ' bravery.
But Ms. Hirsi Ali 's case is different, he says. He admires her conviction, he says, but thinks her rage at Islam belongs in the Middle East and Africa, not the Netherlands . "This is not our fight," he says.
Who did what and why during World War II are still touchy questions here. Holland deported 78% of its Jews -- the highest proportion in Western Europe. Among them was Anne Frank, a Jewish girl whose hiding place in Amsterdam was betrayed by a Nazi informant.
In June 2005, Ernst & Young 's security advisers presented their report to Mr. Verhagen and other apartment owners. The report rated as "high" the risk in having a "high-security residence" in the building, says Mr. Verhagen. "The conclusion was clear: The government made the wrong choice," he says. Ernst & Young confirmed his account of the findings.
Mr. Verhagen ordered his five grandchildren to stop visiting. "I felt unsafe in my own home," he says.
Eleven of 14 apartment owners backed taking legal action to oust Ms. Hirsi Ali. The politician says she received messages from dissenting owners saying they supported her.
In a suit filed late last year, the owners claimed that their security fears, the disruption caused by Ms. Hirsi Ali 's bodyguards and the likely damage to property values violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees "respect for private and family life" and the home, and bars "interference by a public authority."
The government fought the claim, arguing that the tight security had made the building among the safest in The Hague . It also offered unspecified compensation to offset financial damage.
An initial ruling last November went against the owners. Eight of the eleven, determined to get rid of Ms. Hirsi Ali, pressed on.
In an April 27 ruling, an appeals court rejected the argument that the risk of declining property values and the long waits for the elevator constituted a violation of human rights. But citing the murder of Mr. van Gogh and threats against Ms. Hirsi Ali, the court ruled that the "more than negligibly small risk" of a terrorist attack violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Although it acknowledged that finding Ms. Hirsi Ali another shelter would be "unquestionably hard," it nonetheless ordered her to move out within four months.
The judgment prompted disbelief in some quarters. "Put her in the middle of the Atlantic and then everyone will be safe," joked Kees Lunshof, a newspaper columnist.
Others saw more ominous signs. "From a moral point of view, it stinks of cowardice," says Johannes Houwink ten Cate, a professor at Amsterdam University and head of the Institute of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a Dutch research group. An expert on Holland 's treatment of Jews during the Nazi occupation, he says he has "more understanding" for people who betrayed their neighbors out of fear during wartime than for the actions of Ms. Hirsi Ali 's well-off neighbors in an era of peace.
Her decision to leave the country for the U.S. spares the Dutch government the chore of finding her a new sanctuary. She 'll be gone by the court 's eviction deadline. "Sad and relieved, I will pack my bags again. I will go," she said at a news conference yesterday.
She doesn 't begrudge her neighbors their security fears, but says she suspects property prices were their main concern. This blinded them to a bigger peril, she says. "Radical Islam is not just against me. It 's against them, too," she maintains. "By having me evicted, the terrorists have won. It makes the situation more dangerous for everyone."
Mr. Verhagen, her neighbor, now lives in a different building in a new apartment he purchased before the ruling. His grandchildren visit again, and he 's trying to sell his property in Ms. Hirsi Ali 's building for more than $1.3 million.
Mr. Verhagen says he 's "very sad" his former neighbor decided to leave the country but doesn 't regret trying to drive her out of her apartment. "I 'm happy I 'm out of there," he says.