The Netherlands and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The End of Tolerance?

The Moroccan-born Dutch author Abdelkader Benali says he basically disagreed with most everything Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali did or stood for. Yet in his commentary he states that the Netherlands has lost its greatest intellectual trendsetter in ages

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (photo: AP)
"Hirsi Ali fought for the rights of Muslim women, even though Muslim women didn't want to have anything to do with her," Benali writes

​​"The Dutch are like the giants in Homer's Odyssey," a tall American recently remarked to me in a bar in Tangier. "They see the world with only one eye." He placed a hand over his left eye, demonstrating the uneasy feeling one gets when forced to look at the world with such an unrelenting gaze. "The Netherlands is a country of cyclopses." The American has been proven right. Hirsi Ali is on her way to the United States to take part in that country's intellectual debate, while the Netherlands has lost its greatest intellectual trendsetter in ages. This drama reveals something about the deeply conservative, Protestant character of a country that cannot stand those who tower above the masses. The departure of Ali is part of a long tradition.

A plaything of the elite

The Dutch do not love heroes, they do not love themselves, nor are they able to cope in this great, big world full of contradictions. This is the tragedy of the Netherlands – really a mini-tragedy – that extends only so far as the sign reading "Welcome to Antwerp." I did not share the views of Hirsi Ali. As a woman coming from a Muslim milieu in which 95 percent of all girls undergo genital circumcision, she confronted the members of another Muslim milieu in the Netherlands, the Moroccans, in which zero percent of girls are circumcised, with the weaknesses of their religion. I found her bold ideas and her representation of reality grotesque. They lacked little, if any, supporting statistics. Yet, I must profess my love for grotesque anti-heroes. She was provocative, took a confrontational approach, and conducted her protest in a singularly unique manner. She fought for the rights of Muslim women, even though Muslim women didn't want to have anything to do with her. She applied shock therapy, but the patients had no confidence in her methods. She had few supporters even among enlightened Muslims. In my fantasy, she continues to exist as an Islamic Don Quixote.

Anti-Islamic sentiments

She was the plaything of the Dutch elite, which regularly requires such figures. This elite is white, lives in Amsterdam, and regarded Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a welcome spokesperson for their own – justified or not – anti-Islamic sentiments. After the events of September 11, she began her ascent within these circles, and her star continued to rise with every Islamic terrorist attack. Whenever Hirsi Ali was criticized, the elite quickly formed a "cordon sanitaire" around her. Ali was holy. She was always referred to only by Ayaan, never by her full name. She was constantly pampered. Some even appointed themselves to be her patrons, others swallowed her fantasy products like candy, and yet others became her speechwriters. It has been ages since so many of the elite showed such a passion for someone. All she needed to do was to continue to claim that Islam was the devil incarnate and incompatible with democratic values. She remained, nonetheless, cosmopolitan, a fighter, a woman of the world, our Ayaan. She now sees herself being forced to move abroad. It is evident that she has lost support for her campaign. Many felt she was too counterproductive, and, at the same time, much of what she was promoting has been adopted by the existing "nice" parties. The bitter thing about the whole affair is that a friend from her own party wanted to expel her for using a false name on her asylum application. What's in a name? Of course, it has nothing to do with the name, but rather with the boomerang thrown by Hirsi Ali.

The most tolerant country in the world

The Netherlands of the 1990s – open, tolerant, and multicultural – has hereby been demolished at one stroke. This was the Netherlands that was applauded for being different, where Muslims, who slaughtered a sheep once a year, were regarded as innocent lambs. Where mosques were subsidized by the state and no one asked what sort of absurd, even anti-Western rhetoric was being propagated there. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a victim of her own battle. She doesn't see this as being so bad, and is even pleased that now she can move on. She wanted to leave the Netherlands next year at the end of the legislature period in any event. Seeing as how she was rarely visible in Parliament any more, the difference of a few months is hardly important. What good is staying in a country where you can't rely on your political friends when the going gets rough? Immigrants can learn a lesson from this alarming development. Even if they proclaim their support for the norms and values of enlightened Western society, they still have to fear for their skin. Worse yet, those who defend liberal values end up cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Bitter departure

By adopting this intolerant course, the Netherlands has maneuvered itself into a dead end. I find it satisfying to view the wreckage of the Dutch model. The rubble will have to be carefully sifted to create a new system that at once takes a very critical stance towards the country's political institutions and that is based more on individual tenacity. The welfare state cannot offer the individual the necessary degree of protection. Through her headstrong solo performance, Hirsi Ali's contribution to the multicultural debate has consisted in making at least one thing clear. Those who act on the basis of their own ideas and through their own efforts – sometimes with a little support – achieve the most. Hers is a talent that will take her far in the United States, even when her critique of religion will win her few friends. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has found a way out. Yet, those who haven't had it so easy are left with an odd feeling.

Who can an immigrant then trust in this country? Are they now left to their own devices – hovering between peer pressure and the demands of a post-modern society? Just as her arrival, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's departure has been staged to the last detail. Those who can flee also know what it is to leave. Not everyone can depart in such a stylish manner. In her farewell address, she said, "I arrived in the Netherlands in the summer of 1992. I wanted to take control of my own life. I didn't want to be the prisoner of a future that someone else had determined for me." To this very day, she has lived her life according to these uncompromising words and has remained true even in this bitter moment. I am going to call up my American acquaintance in Tangier and ask if he has a room for her.

Abdelkader Benali

© Abdelkader Benali 2006 Translated from the German by John Bergeron

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily 'Neue Zürcher Zeitung'.

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