Profile in Courage
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?"
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.
As a member of Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali advocated for refugees to be able to stay in the Netherlands after their visas expired. She was ultimately unsuccessful. But that's not what made her one of the country's most controversial politicians. (In the Netherlands, unlike here, just saying the word "amnesty" isn't enough to get you voted out of office.)
Instead, it was her critique of radical Islam.
The death threats Hirsi Ali faced were not trumped-up, Arpaio-style publicity grabs. As a fledgling politician, she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh on the film Submission, just ten minutes long but wildly inflammatory. Women were shown with verses from the Koran painted on their half-naked bodies, verses openly advocating their abuse.
One month after the film's première, a Muslim man shot and stabbed Van Gogh to death in the middle of a busy street. The knife thrust into Van Gogh's chest held a letter warning that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was next.
Unrest had been brewing over immigration in the Netherlands even before Hirsi Ali began speaking out. Reading Infidel, I got the sense it was perhaps something like the powder keg here in Arizona today. The Dutch resented the Muslim youths, who seemed so uninterested in their culture. They saw crime rising and their taxes subsidizing immigrants who bore baby after baby.
On some level, Hirsi Ali gave the xenophobes ammunition. She told them what they had feared: The new immigrants were not assimilating. Instead, they were clinging to their old ways, and forcing them onto a new generation even in a new country.
But Hirsi Ali's call was markedly different from that of the immigrant-bashers so vocal here today.
She didn't want migrants expelled. She just wanted them to be taught Western values.
To polite Dutch liberals, even that was horrifying. Imposing Western values on another culture implies that we know better than they. It means that not all ideas are created equal.
Indeed, Hirsi Ali insists that Islam is no religion of peace. It's dangerous. It can't be tolerated; it must be stopped.
Those words are blasphemy to some Dutch, and blasphemy to many American liberals. I was stunned to read the profiles written about Hirsi Ali in major U.S. newspapers. She is articulate, soft-spoken, and a thoughtful writer, yet because her ideas are politically incorrect, she's painted as a bomb thrower. It's easier, I guess, to tar her as a Third-World Ann Coulter than to actually grapple with her ideas.
I'm glad the Goldwater Institute didn't do that. Instead of framing her views for her, they let her talk.
While Hirsi Ali opted not to give a speech, she was interviewed on stage by the Goldwater Institute's executive director, Darcy Olsen. Their conversation was as interesting as any dinner party you'll attend this holiday season.
Hirsi Ali talked about her reaction to the events of September 11, how polite intellectuals tried to make excuses for the killers who brought down the twin towers. It's not Islam that caused the terrorists to act, they argued. Maybe it was the situation in Palestine. Maybe it was American imperialism.
"I didn't understand what they were debating about," Hirsi Ali told Olson. "It is Islam!"
The most touching line of the evening was Hirsi Ali's plea that we not abandon people to their familial traditions. People, she believes, can be taught — and should be taught.
"This is not something in our bone marrow," she said, of the Muslim proclivity to violence. "It is something we were brought up with.
"The general attitude, not just in the West but throughout the world, is that all cultures are equal," she added. "And that those of us born in misogynistic cultures must pass them on, and those in free cultures must respect our culture and let us pass it on.
"We need to fight that idea!"
I'd been feeling a Jimmy Carter-like malaise this fall. With the real-estate market crashing, and the war grinding on, it felt like this country was falling apart. The crazies on the right were screaming at the crazies on the left, and the center simply wasn't holding.
But after a mere half-hour of hearing Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak winningly about the virtues of the West, I'll admit it. I feel good about America again.
Good economy or bad, we have something wonderful in this country. We have the right ideas. Yes, we've messed up time and again, but we have this wonderful principle that all of us are created equal and this wonderful Bill of Rights that leaves us free to pursue individual happiness. That's as great as it gets.
Knowing that we have the Big Ideas nailed, I suppose we could go to war and try to spread those values by forced revolution. But it's clear from the boondoggle in Iraq — that doesn't work. As Hirsi Ali explained, the key is instead making a case for the value of freedom.
And, in the meantime, I think, with so much repression and poverty in so many nations, it becomes incumbent on this country to let in as many immigrants as we can handle, provided those immigrants are willing to work. We must find a way to let people forge new lives here, rather than condemn them to hell simply because they were born on the wrong side of the border.
It's true that Ayaan Hirsi Ali never mentioned Mexico in her remarks at the Phoenician. But freedom and its opportunities are just as important for smart little girls growing up in Mexico as they have been for her.
If we really believe in individual freedom — if we really believe that each of us should have the chance to make a life — having the right papers can never be as important as having determination.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's story is proof of that.
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