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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske