Words that risk death

Posted on December 11, 2007 | Type: In the News
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The hazards of expressing a controversial view in the Arizona Republic opinion sections run to outraged phone calls, indignant e-mails and caustic Internet comments. For protection, all a writer needs is a thick skin.

The risks couldn't be more different for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken feminist and critic of Islamic extremism.

She needs bodyguards and an armored car.

In 2004, an Islamist brutally shot and stabbed Theo van Gogh, her collaborator on a short film about Muslim women. The attacker thrust a knife into van Gogh, pinning a note to his body that threatened Hirsi Ali.

She didn't back off. She published a manifesto for Muslim women and a personal memoir. As recently as last week, she wrote a scathing op-ed about Sudanese authorities who arrested a British woman for naming a teddy bear Mohammed.

Forced into hiding, Hirsi Ali still speaks out because "there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice."

The Goldwater Institute recognized her extraordinary commitment to freedom on Friday with its annual Goldwater Award for Liberty.

It would be hard to find a better choice.

Hirsi Ali represents one of the best examples of freedom of expression. She is incendiary, passionate and not about to mince words. She wants the West to reject a "cultural relativism" that leads us to tolerate regimes that oppress women in the name of Islam and that support Islamic schools with radical agendas.

Speaking at Friday's award ceremony in Phoenix, she said, "We have to believe in the glory of freedom to compete with the glory of martyrdom."

Her vision is that a vast crowd of fully veiled Muslim women will gather in Washington on some July 4 in the future and, as the bells ring out freedom, throw off their veils.

Hirsi Ali deserves the Goldwater Award not because what she says is right but because it sparks vigorous debate.

Her story has become familiar since her autobiography, Infidel, hit the best-seller lists. Born in Somalia and following her family as a refugee to other countries, she fled to the Netherlands to avoid a forced marriage to a man she'd never met. She became an activist in the cause of Muslim women and was elected to parliament. She resigned last year over a flap about her Dutch citizenship and is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank. Her latest challenge is the Dutch government's refusal to pay security costs when she is out of the country.

The title of her book underlines Hirsi Ali's decision to reject Islam.

Some of her critics - and she has plenty - argue that she therefore loses influence with Muslims. They say she focuses on the most repressive, extreme versions of Islam, while ignoring places like Turkey and Egypt, with secular governments and opportunities for women.

But Hirsi Ali points out real problems: the Danish cartoon controversy, the practice of female genital mutilation in many countries under the cloak of religion, the unjust treatment of women (the Saudi rape victim who is being punished herself is just the latest case).

Hirsi Ali raises hackles when she wonders whether there really are any moderate Muslims. Those are fighting words. And that's good. Because moderate Muslims need to join the debate and raise the volume.

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