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Hirsi Ali: A refugee from Islam

WHILE her security contingent waits outside the Georgetown restaurant, Ayaan Hirsi Ali orders what the menu calls "raw steak tartare." Amused by the redundancy, she speculates that it is intended to immunize the restaurant against lawyers, should a customer be discommoded by that entree. She has been in America only two weeks. She is a quick study.

And she is an exile and an immigrant. Born 36 years ago in Somalia, Hirsi Ali has lived in Ethiopia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands, where she settled in 1992 after she deplaned in Frankfurt, Germany, supposedly en route to Canada for a marriage, arranged by her father, to a cousin. She makes her own arrangements now.

She quickly became a Dutch citizen, a member of parliament, and an astringent critic, from personal experience, of the condition of women under Islam. She wrote the script, and filmmaker Theo van Gogh directed, "Submission," an 11-minute movie featuring pertinent passages from the Koran (such as when it is a husband's duty to beat his wife) projected on the bodies of naked women.

It was shown twice before Nov. 2, 2004, when van Gogh, bicycling through central Amsterdam in the morning, was shot by an Islamic extremist who then slit his throat with a machete. Next, the murderer (in whose room was found a disk containing videos of "enemies of Allah" being murdered, including a man having his head slowly sawed off) used another knife to pin a long letter to van Gogh's chest. The letter was to Hirsi Ali, calling her a "soldier of evil" who would "smash herself to pieces on Islam."

The remainder of her life in Holland was lived under guard. Neighbors in her apartment building complained that they felt endangered with her there and got a court to order her eviction. She decided to come to America.

Holland evidently tolerates everything except skepticism about the sacramental nature of multiculturalism. One million of the country's 16 million residents are Islamic, and the political left has appropriated the European right's traditional celebration of identity grounded in racial and ethnic traditions and culture. But the recoil of many Dutch people from Hirsi Ali suggests that the tolerance about which Holland preens is a compound of intellectual sloth and moral timidity. She was more trouble than the Dutch evidently think free speech is worth.

Her story is told in a riveting new book, "Murder in Amsterdam," by Ian Buruma, who is not alone in finding her this "Enlightenment fundamentalist" somewhat unnerving and off-putting. Having experienced life circumscribed by tribal and religious communities (as a girl she suffered the genital mutilation called female circumcision), she is a fierce partisan of individualism against collectivism.

She reminds Buruma of Margaret Thatcher's sometimes abrasive intelligence and fascination with America. He is dismissive of the idea that she is a Voltaire against Islam: Voltaire, he says, offended the powerful Catholic Church, whereas she offends "only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe."

She, however, replies that this is hardly a normal minority. It is connected to Islam's worldwide adherents. Living sullenly in European "dish cities" enclaves connected by satellite television and the Internet to the tribal societies they have not really left behind many members of this minority are uninterested in assimilation into open societies.

She calls herself "a dissident of Islam" because, given what Allah supposedly enjoins and what she knows is right, "the cognitive dissonance is, for me, too much." She says she is not "a militant atheist," but puts the emphasis on the adjective.

Slender, elegant, stylish and articulate (in English, Dutch and Swahili), she has found an intellectual home here at the American Enterprise Institute, where she is writing a book that imagines Muhammad meeting, in the New York Public Library, three thinkers John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, each a hero of the unending struggle between (to take the title of Popper's 1945 masterpiece) "The Open Society and Its Enemies." Islamic extremists the sort who were unhinged by some Danish cartoons will be enraged. She is unperturbed.

Neither is she pessimistic about the West. It has, she says, "the drive to innovate." But Europe, she thinks, is invertebrate. After two generations without war, Europeans "have no idea what an enemy is." And they think, she says, that leadership is an antiquated notion because they believe that caring governments can socialize everyone to behave well, thereby erasing personal accountability and responsibility. "I can't even tell it without laughing," she says, laughing softly. Clearly she is where she belongs, at last.

George Will (georgewill@washpost.com) writes for the Washington Post.

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