Profile in Courage

An immigrantís tale from halfway around the world should make us think about whatís going on closer to home

In Republican social circles, it's an unavoidable, if slightly weird, fact: Invite Joe Arpaio just about anywhere, and Joe Arpaio shows up. Whether it's a roast in Sun City, the opening of a raunchy Scottsdale taquería, even the Arizona Republic Christmas party — the elderly sheriff has nothing better to do than attend.

So I wasn't actually surprised when Arpaio showed up for the Goldwater Institute's schmancy annual fete at the Phoenician last week. But Arpaio's arrival still provoked a certain tension, and not only because the room was packed with freedom-loving libertarians hostile to the sheriff's unbridled authoritarianism.

No, I was worried about bigger things. Namely, I fretted, "He's not going to arrest the guest of honor, is he?"

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
courtesy of the Goldwater Institute
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

On this night, the Goldwater Institute was honoring Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Dutch politician, provocateur targeting Islam, intellectual.

And, as it turns out, illegal immigrant.

That evening, I'd just finished reading Hirsi Ali's book, Infidel. It's gripping and brilliant, a mesmerizing account of one woman's evolution from a true-believing, hijab-wearing Muslim to an atheist bearing witness to the dangers of radical Islam. After Hirsi Ali collaborated with the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to make a movie criticizing the religion, Van Gogh was infamously murdered in the streets of Amsterdam — and Ayaan Hirsi Ali was warned that she was next.

The book also details Hirsi Ali's physical journey, and that's what I found myself contemplating as the GOP bigwigs took their seats for dinner. Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali was raised in Muslim communities in Saudi Arabia and Kenya before fleeing to the Netherlands — fleeing, I might point out, without the necessary papers.

She was supposed to go to Canada to marry a man chosen by her father, a man she'd met only twice. But she'd grown up on a steady diet of Western novels, of Wuthering Heights and Nancy Drew and even Harlequin romances, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali wanted something more than submission to a man she didn't love.

So Hirsi Ali got off the plane in Germany and never made her connecting flight to Canada. Instead, she took a train to the Netherlands and lied to immigration officials, giving them the wrong name and the wrong date of birth so that her family couldn't find her.

She didn't tell them that she was fleeing a potentially crappy marriage; that would never win her asylum.

She told them, instead, that she was fleeing civil war.

Years later, after Hirsi Ali became the most controversial politician in the Netherlands, a get-tough-on-immigration official yanked her citizenship over that lie. "Rules are rules," the official said. It took a massive outcry from the citizenry for the decision to be reversed.

I was touched by Hirsi Ali's story, and when she shared parts of it last weekend, the audience at the Phoenician clearly was, too. When she admitted to reading Nancy Drew novels as a girl, you could practically see the crowd swoon.

It's a wonderful image: a little girl growing up in Africa, dreaming the same dreams that girls do in the United States. You may be awkward and bookish, held back by your parents' repressive values, but you long for adventure, for romance, for a "room of one's own," and while you're at it, a stylish blue roadster.

These dreams can be hard enough for American girls to achieve. But reading Infidel, I realized how much bravery Ayaan Hirsi Ali must have had.

As a child, she was beaten by her mother at the slightest provocation, told that women had no options, literally locked in the house for days when she attempted to go to secretarial school. When she was five, her family ordered her genitals mutilated to keep her from even thinking about enjoying sex.

But she still had the guts to take that train to the Netherlands. In Infidel, she writes that every year on July 24, she remembers her great leap forward. "I see it as my real birthday: the birth of me as a person, making decisions about my life on my own.

"I was not running away from Islam, or to a democracy. I didn't have any big ideas then. I was just a young girl and wanted some way to be me; so I bolted into the unknown."

Watching her onstage at the Phoenician, being honored by everyone from U.S. Senator John Kyl to Congressman John Shadegg, I realized that Hirsi Ali's gamble paid off. She'd left everything she knew, and risked everything, including lying to the immigration authorities, to "bolt into the unknown."

You can see why I was worried about Sheriff Joe locking her up. Hers is one hell of an immigrant's story.

In the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's ascent was remarkable. She showed up not knowing a word of Dutch, worked menial jobs just to get off welfare, and then got a job as a translator to pay her way through school. After studying political science, she got a job at a think tank, which brought attention to her ideas about Muslim immigrants. And that led, unbelievably, to getting elected to the Dutch Parliament. All that in ten years.

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Ken Calman writes, "Where we find problems in our illegals isn't their willingness to work but their willingness to assimilate . . . many of our illegal workers who have been here for years still don't know a word of English . . ."Gosh, Mr. Calman, the degree of assimilation that prevents genital mutilation, arranged marriages, and the murder of people who bring attention to those atrocities is really quite enough for me. If my neighbors from other countries can assimilate that much while working too many hours and in too much fear to attend English classes, I'm really okay with that and I imagine the Dutch would be, too.

Ken Calman
Ken Calman

Ms. Fenske;As I read this article a reponse was formatting itself in my mind as I marveled at seeing such a right-of-center item in a generally left-of-center news venue, thinking that congratulations were due for your objectivity, not to mention courage, in pointing out the flawed (or possibly hijacked) Islam religion and the dangers in opposing the so-called religion of peace. All that changed as I read the final paragraphs.

It was disingenuous to say the least to equate a brave woman exposing a religion hijacked by fanatics and operating around the world to conduct acts of violence against the innocent, where asylum is obviously needed, with those from South of our own border who come here from no such persecution but for reasons purely of enhancing their finances.

"Willing to work" isn't really the dividing line anyway, is it? Where we find problems in our illegals isn't their willingness to work but their willingness to assimilate, the same issue you wrote about having affected The Netherlands. If you haven't yet noticed, many of our illegal workers who have been here for years still don't know a word of English. Why do you suppose that is?


Truth-seekers and -speakers have always been hated and persecuted. It most certainly happens in our own country. Remember Cassandra of Troy? Her curse was that she would always speak true prophecy but that noone would believe her.


Very good article.I am an indian ,but firstly i consider myself a human being.I appreciate the courage of Hirsi Ali in airing her views honestly.There is another writer who is fighting for humanism .Her name is Taslima Nasreen.She was forced to flee from her home country Bangladesh just because she spoke the truth.She was forced to live in exile for more than 10 years.At present she is in India.But here also she is being persecuted by islamic fundamentalists and selective secularists.It is sad that while Taslima is putting her life in line for the cause of humanism and equality,people who must protect her are ignoring her.I hope that millions of Ayans and Taslimas will emerge from the shadows to fight for humanism.

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