by Manfred Gerstenfeld, published in European-Israeli Relations: Between Confusion and Change? by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2006
In the past few years Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become known worldwide. In 2006, Reader’s Digest gave her the European of the Year award and said she best embodied Europe’s contemporary values. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 and granted asylum in the Netherlands in 1992. She left for the United States in spring 2006 after she had to resign from the Dutch parliament because of a minister’s ruling that she had never obtained the Dutch nationality.
Under parliamentary pressure, the minister’s decision was canceled a few weeks later. Over the past years, however, Hirsi Ali’s life had become almost unbearable because of ongoing Muslim threats and their consequences. Her last neighbors obtained a court injunction that she had to relocate because they felt the permanent protection she received affected their privacy.
Israel: Solving Immigration Problems
Part of Hirsi Ali’s interest in Israel concerns its approach to solving immigration problems somewhat similar to those with which the Netherlands has such great difficulty. Her adoptive country is perplexed at the trouble it has in integrating numerous non-Western immigrants and their offspring, to a substantial extent of Muslim origin.
She says: “I visited Israel a few years ago, primarily to understand how it dealt so well with so many immigrants from different origins. My main impression was that Israel is a liberal democracy. In the places I visited, including Jerusalem as well as Tel Aviv and its beaches, I saw that men and women are equal. One never knows what happens behind the scenes, but that is how it appears to the visitor. The many women in the army are also very visible.
“I understood that a crucial element of success is the unifying factor among immigrants to Israel. Whether one arrives from Ethiopia or Russia, or one’s grandparents immigrated from Europe, what binds them is being Jewish. Such a bond is lacking in the Netherlands. Our immigrants’ background is diverse and also differs greatly from that of the Netherlands, including religion.”
Socialist and Palestinian Corruption
“I have visited the Palestinian quarters in Jerusalem as well. Their side is dilapidated, for which they blame the Israelis. In private, however, I met a young Palestinian who spoke excellent English. There were no cameras and no notebooks. He said the situation was partly their own fault, with much of the money sent from abroad to build Palestine being stolen by corrupt leaders.
“When I start to speak in the Netherlands about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the role of Arafat in the tragedy of Palestine, I do not get a large audience. Often one is talking to a wall. Many people reply that Israel first has to withdraw from the territories, and then all will be well with Palestine.
“Before I joined the VVD liberal party, I was a member of the Labor Party. They have forgotten the positive role they played in the creation of Israel. Their great model thinker is the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, who promotes solidarity with those who are weak. In socialist eyes whoever isn’t white or Western is a victim, and this includes Muslims, Palestinians, and immigrants. My position is that I am not a victim. I am responsible for my acts like anybody else and so are all people.”
“I studied social work for a year in the Netherlands. Our teachers taught us to look with different eyes toward the immigrant and the foreigner. They thought racism was a phenomenon that only appears among whites. My family in Somalia, however, educated me as a racist and told me that we Muslims were very superior to the Christian Kenyans. My mother thinks they are half-monkeys.
“When I started to explain this truth in the class, the teacher responded that it was ‘untrue and impossible.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is true.’ I mentioned that I was living in the center for asylum seekers in the town of Ede and that the Somalis I knew there talked about native Dutchmen as uncircumcised, irreligious, and dirty.
“When a Somali man in the Netherlands sees his sister with a Dutch friend, that is what he thinks and he usually becomes very angry. Such attitudes may spill over to behavior. There was a case in the Netherlands, for instance, where an Iraqi man killed his sister because she bore a child from a native Dutchman. That is extreme nonwhite racism, even if it is called honor-related violence. After my initiative in the Dutch parliament, a pilot investigation was carried out that found there had been eleven honor-related murders in the Netherlands over an eight-month period.”
Dutch Double Standards
“There are many other cases of minority racism. For instance, a nephew and a niece may have to get married because the family wants to keep its blood pure. Marrying someone from another race, of course, is completely out of the question. If, however, a native Dutch woman says, ‘I’m not interested in a Moroccan man,’ then it makes all the headlines. The Dutch think this manifests the decline of their society. “If a Dutchman says he doesn’t want a Moroccan or a Turk as a neighbor, he is a racist. Ifa Moroccan says, ‘I want to live next to other Moroccans,’ that is viewed as a sign of group attachment, because he has been isolated by immigrating. So that is not considered racism. If a right-wing skinhead draws swastikas on a Jewish cemetery, that is Nazism and he will be punished. If a Moroccan immigrant does the same, it is an expression of his displeasure with the Israeli-Palestinian
“A few years ago on 4 May when the Netherlands commemorated its World War II dead with two minutes of silence, Moroccan youngsters made a lot of noise in one Amsterdam location and played football with the memorial wreaths in another. Although there were angry reactions, even this was explained as a protest against the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
“Defining an individual as an eternal victim is a fundamental mistake. Colored people, Muslims, and other non-Western immigrants are not victims. They are individuals, like me, who have come to the Netherlands in search of a better life. Itis my responsibility to improve my life, and I am not asking the authorities to do it for me. I request only to live in an environment of peace and security. The socialist worldview is different. Those who are not white and Christian, and do not share the ideas of Christian civilization, are victims by definition. “Paradoxically enough, that attitude derives partly from the Holocaust, which created major guilt feelings in the Netherlands. Some people think the behavior of their countrymen toward the Jews during the war is something that should never be repeated. Thus they compensate by letting Muslims beat their wives and a few others beat up homosexuals or prepare to plant bombs. Such an attitude reflects
Double Moral Standards toward Israel
“The crisis of Dutch socialism can be sized up in its attitudes toward both Islam and Israel. It holds Israel to exceptionally high moral standards. The Israelis, however, will always do well, because they themselves set high standards for their actions.
“The standards for judging the Palestinians, however, are very low. Most outsiders remain silent on all the problems in their territories. That helps the Palestinians become even more corrupt than they already are. Those who live in the territories are not allowed to say anything about this, because they risk being murdered by their own people.”
When asked whether the moral standards to which many Dutch hold Israel are often also far higher than those they apply to the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali replies: “The VVD and parts of the CDA Christian Democrats do not apply double standards to Israel, nor do the smaller Christian parties. Many other politicians do, however.
“This also has to be seen in a wider context. Not only the Netherlands, but many other European countries have changed their minds after more than fifty years of commemorations of the Holocaust. They are happy to free themselves of its history and of Israel’s history.
Thus they apply these very unequal criteria. They also think they are entitled to have their double standards, whereas the Israelis are not.”
Israel’s Security Needs
Hirsi Ali fully understands Israel’s security needs. Her own history makes her very sensitive to them. She is no stranger to threats by other Muslims. In November 2004, Theo van Gogh made the movie Submission on extreme discrimination against women by Muslims, based on Hirsi Ali’s script. Soon after he was cruelly murdered by the radical Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri. The latter left a knife in his body to which a letter was attached that threatened several Dutch politicians with murder, of which Hirsi Ali was one.
She had already received many threats before that. This time Hirsi Ali had to leave her home and live for weeks in a Dutch army camp. Part of the time the Dutch sent her to the United States because they could not protect her in the Netherlands. She could not do her parliamentary work during that period. The same was the case for the Dutch conservative politician Geert Wilders.
Her preoccupation with security is felt throughout our conversation. Before she arrives in the hotel where we meet, one of her state-provided guards tells me she can only sit at one specific table in the lobby. Elsewhere she may be shot at through the windows. When she arrives surrounded by tall bodyguards, two young Danish men in the room come over to express their admiration for her.
When we start to talk, she is worried about somebody who remains seated too close to us for her taste. I explain that he is probably a foreigner who has no idea who she is. Finally the hotel manager, who is very honored by her visit, suggests that we continue our conversation in his office.
Who Is Responsible?
The conversation moves to who is responsible for the Middle East conflict. Hirsi Ali says: “It is hard to believe that there are Dutch people who say that if Israel would follow another foreign policy and withdraw from the territories, the problem would disappear entirely.
This attitude is infantile and utopian wishful thinking, but one cannot get it out of their heads.
“Still I do try sometimes. For instance, I refer to the behavior of Arab countries that have no direct interaction with Israel. Their oil reserves have made them extremely rich, yet they remain very fundamentalist, hate the West, and want to destroy it. This Wahhabi thinking is promoted by the Saudis and not the Palestinians. To think that if Israel leaves the occupied territories, Saudi Arabia will suddenly propagate another religion is both too infantile for words and opportunistic.
“To counteract such attitudes, Israel first of all has to stand firm. A state’s prime responsibility is to guarantee the security of its citizens. If Israel doesn’t do that, its society is in danger. When I visited Israel, I found much firmness there. One such person I talked to there was Natan Sharansky, whom I have also met in the Netherlands.”
Israeli and Dutch Fundamentalism
Not all of Hirsi Ali’s reactions to what she saw in Israel were positive. “From my superficial impression, the country also has a problem with fundamentalists. The ultra-Orthodox will cause a demographic problem because these fanatics have more children than the secular and the regular Orthodox.
“Knowledge and realism are the basis for the well-being of a small country. Those who want to exclude their children from this so as to promote a certain type of religion are a danger for any state. Such an attitude also exists among nonfundamentalists in Dutch society. There are many who close their eyes to realities. All they want is entertainment; they do not want to read anything or find out anything more. People like that no longer understand what danger is.
“However, if there are bomb attacks in the Netherlands like those in London in July 2005, utopian socialism will increasingly give way to realism. The utopists, once Muslims throw a bomb at their house, will lose much of their leftist ideology and become more realistic human beings. There is already such a trend in the Netherlands. When the immigrants arrived, many of them refused to integrate.At that time the authorities refused to listen to the complaints of native Dutchmen.
“Thus more and more people left the big cities for the suburbs or the countryside. There is also some emigration from the Netherlands for a variety of reasons. Farmers have gone abroad and been successful. This will influence others who will want to do the same.
“On the other hand, some groups of native Dutch have begun to defend themselves through violence. Increasingly people want to join new political parties that make security and the fight against terrorism a central plank. The existing parties and the Dutch government will have to deal with developments more realistically. If they run away from their responsibility there will be small, or even large, explosions of violence.”
A False Image of Tolerance
“Those who propagate the image of the Netherlands as a tolerant country talk nonsense. There is a huge difference between being tolerant and tolerating intolerance. Many Dutchmen think they are very tolerant if they let others do whatever they want so long as it doesn’t threaten their own personal freedom.
”A few centuries ago, they did not have that attitude. They did not tolerate the Dutch Catholic church because it was an intolerant religion. The Catholics then adapted themselves. Many Dutch baby boomers in power nowadays, however, think that if you tolerate the actions of those who break the law that is a sign of great tolerance.”
One of the many occasions when Hirsi Ali received much publicity in the Netherlands was in March 2004. She wrote an open letter to Amsterdam socialist mayor Job Cohen, telling him he was a nice and involved person but was radically wrong in his understanding and approach to the Muslim issue in the Netherlands.
Criticizing the Mayor of Amsterdam
Some of her observations in that letter were:
A consensus policy works only if all parties concerned agree to a pragmatic approach…. In what society do you want Muslims to integrate? In a secular individualistic society? In a democratic
society where the law rules that has been created by human beings and not by God? In a society where parents try to educate their children-boys and girls-to become independent individuals, who after they are eighteen act as responsible citizens?
The adherents of Islam have diametrically opposed ideas to this…. True Muslims see secular countries as sinner states, which regretfully are in power today. The head of the mosque …sees in you the confirmation that the secular power-holder is a sinner…. In your conversations with them they [only] tell you what you so much want to hear.
She also referred to Cohen’s Jewishness:
The spirit of profound anti-Semitism that dominates the Muslims sees in you not a nice mayor of Amsterdam, who has the best intentions toward his citizens and wants to keep society together. They see a shrewd Jewish manager who wants to manipulate the world according to his will.
A Jew Remains a Jew
In our conversation Hirsi Ali also adds that Cohen has for some time been in need of bodyguards. “One would think that radical Muslims would be smart and not threaten somebody who gives them all they want. He provides their children with the possibility for segregated swimming and subsidies for segregated schools. He supports additional mosques. But some Muslims threaten him to make him understand that whatever the Jew does to please them, he always remains a Jew. For the head of the Amsterdam mosques, the mayor is the Jew Cohen.”
Hirsi Ali sees Cohen as a central figure in the mistaken approach toward Amsterdam’s problems with minorities. “He is indeed a sweet, cultured man, full of good intentions. He is also lonely and thus a true victim for whom I have a lot of sympathy. The more he does for the Muslims, the more he is criticized by them. He also gets a lot of criticism from the Jewish community because of the anti-Semitism in
Amsterdam, while many native Dutchmen say: ‘We don’t feel secure. You, Mr. Mayor, speak all the time about keeping things together, but the city has already for a long time not been kept together.’ The task of a mayor is to see to it that living in his city is safe. His approach of, ‘I give a lecture here, I give a lecture there’ is of no interest in this context.
“Cohen finds the way I talk about Islam and Muslims harmful. He says it sets people against each other. I, however, tell the truth. If a homosexual is beaten up in Amsterdam by Muslim youngsters out of their religious convictions, it is my duty as a parliamentarian to make that known. It is his duty as a mayor to see that these Moroccan youngsters are treated severely. One shouldn’t tell pathetic stories about the difficult youth they may have had because that is irrelevant. They are criminals.
“As a nonnative Dutchman, I am always welcome as long as I agree with everybody. I am supposed to be extremely grateful if I am defined as a victim. If I have a dissenting opinion, I am ‘the other, the non Dutch’ for the socialist. They tell me that I have just arrived. Cohen, when he talks to me or to Afshin Ellian, an Iranian refugee who is both a Leiden University law professor and a poet, always refers to our background. When we disagree he says: ‘Yes, I can imagine that. You people have had such bad experiences in your home countries.’
“If I were the mayor of Amsterdam, I would follow Giuliani’s approach in New York, which worked. The Dutch national authorities have reached a state of mind where they would probably be willing to pay for such methods. Giuliani was called intolerant and a racist. Black Americans demonstrated against him, but New York in his time was safer than Amsterdam is today.”
Hirsi Ali says that what is true for Amsterdam also applies elsewhere in the country. “The Netherlands is only theoretically a state of law. Its legal reality is confronted by a major challenge. Only a small number of criminals are identified, of which only a limited number are sentenced.”
Islam Stopped Thinking a Thousand Years Ago
Hirsi Ali’s criticism of Islam is more general. ”Almost nobody in the West wants to understand that Islam’s problems are structural. Contemporary Islam hardly exists. Islam stopped thinking in the year 900 and has stood still for more than a thousand years. Western Muslims, however, live in an environment where you can think independently without your head being chopped off by somebody.
“If one wants to meet contemporary Muslims, one has to go to the Ahmadiyya movement. The Muslim mainstream, however, considers them heretics. I have been educated as a Muslim, I want to change some oflslam’s tenets. This makes me a heretic and thus radicals want to eliminate me.”
Hirsi Ali explains why she is a danger to radical Muslims. “They realize that I know too much about Islam. I am also a woman. If a woman no longer believes, she frees herself. They are deathly afraid that if one drops out, others may follow; that is how herds function.”
Inducing Muslims to Come out of the Closet
“The Western world is desperately in need of Muslims who use their freedom of thought and opinion. There are many Muslims who think like me. They contact me and when I appeal to them to come out of the closet, they say, ‘It is easy for you to talk. You have all these bodyguards, which I do not have. I must think about my family.’ It is crucial for the United States, Europe, and Israel to see to it that these people get adequate protection.
“Dissident Muslims in the Netherlands see how I and a few other dissidents have been threatened with murder. They do not go to the prime minister to complain about their situation, instead remaining silent. When Van Gogh was murdered, the Dutch queen and the prime minister went to mosques instead of visiting the family of Van Gogh, who was the true victim.
“The Muslims’ leaders had wept to the authorities: ‘We are such poor, pitiful, and threatened people now that Bouyeri has murdered Van Gogh.’ This appeals to Dutch compassion. Add to this that the Labor Party in particular, but also Christian Democrats, want to get Muslim votes, and one gets an idea of the functioning of the Netherlands today.
“The problem exists throughout the West. As long as there is no protection for those who want to change Islam, there will not be a contemporary Islam. It is my intention to start a fund and raise money so that dissident Muslims can be protected. It would have to be managed by others. That is my greatest dream.”
I ask Hirsi Ali what Muslims would do if there were a murderous attack in Amsterdam like the one in London. She replies: “The local authorities will go to the various Muslim organizations and say: ‘Please organize a demonstration to condemn it.’ Such an initiative would not come from Muslims themselves. It would be a totally artificial exercise.”
In June 2006, related to the parliamentary debate on the restoration of Hirsi Ali’s Dutch citizenship, the Dutch cabinet fell. She followed this from the United States, where she had started a new life. The fall of a government over the issue of a single person’s passport represented yet another Dutch absurdity. Another way of looking at this event is that for the first time, a European cabinet fell on an issue concerning migration. It is unlikely to be the last time. Also in that sense, Hirsi Ali has made European history.
* This interview is part of a JPCA research project on Dutch attitudes toward Jews and Israel, sponsored by the Israel Maror Foundation.