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A Dutch Retreat on Speech?

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By Anne Applebaum
Monday, October 8, 2007

And now we come to what may be a truly fundamental test, maybe even a turning point, for that part of the world generally known as the West.

The test is this: Are prominent, articulate critics of radical Islam, critics who happen to be citizens of European countries or the United States, entitled to the same free speech rights enjoyed by other citizens of European countries and the United States?

Legally, of course they are. In practice, they can say what they want -- and then they can be murdered for doing so. That means that Western governments have a special and unusual responsibility to them, as many have long acknowledged. It is no accident that the writer Salman Rushdie, upon whom the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on Feb. 14, 1989, is still very much alive. Though the details have not been publicized, it is assumed that Rushdie remains, one way or another, under the protection of the British police and secret services, both in Britain and abroad. This protection is completely uncontroversial -- in June, the queen even gave Rushdie a knighthood-- and as a result the fatwa has not prevented him from speaking, writing, publishing, even divorcing and remarrying several times over the past 18 years.

The case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch-Somali politician and writer, is different. Hirsi Ali has been under Dutch police protection since 2002, when her public comments about mistreatment of women in the Dutch Muslim community and references to herself as "secular" led to death threats in Holland.

Though encouraged to remain in the country -- and promised security protection -- by the government then in power, the mood in Holland changed in 2004. That year, a fanatic named Mohammed Bouyeri infamously murdered Theo Van Gogh, the director of a film about the oppression of Muslim women -- and then thrust a knife bearing a note threatening Hirsi Ali, who wrote the film's script, into the victim's chest.

Dutch society became, and remains, bitterly divided in the wake of the Van Gogh murder. Some of Hirsi Ali's compatriots decided it was time to address the issues of women, Islam and integration head on. The Dutch writer Leon de Winter, a defender of Hirsi Ali, talks openly about his country's failure to integrate Muslim immigrants, attributing the problem to the Dutch "guilt complex": "As soon as we let people from the Third World come here to work in our rich country, we . . . somehow saw them as sacred victims."

Others simply want Hirsi Ali and her ilk to go away forever, thereby keeping Holland out of the headlines and Amsterdam off terrorists' hit lists. Unlike the British, who have gotten used to the idea that faraway events can affect them, the Dutch, at least in this century, are more insular. That helps explain why, in 2006, the Dutch government tried to revoke Hirsi Ali's citizenship over an old immigration controversy, and why her neighbors went to court that year to have her evicted from her home (they claimed the security threat posed by her presence impinged upon their human rights). But although she did finally move to the United States, the argument continued in her absence. Last week, the Dutch government abruptly cut off her security funding, forcing her to return briefly to Holland.

The reasons given were financial, but there was clearly more to it. To put it bluntly, many in Holland find her too loud, too public in her condemnation of radical Islam. She doesn't sound conciliatory, in the modern continental fashion. Compare her description of Islam as "brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women" with the German judge who, citing the Koran, in January told a Muslim woman trying to obtain a divorce from her violent husband that she should have "expected" her husband to deploy the corporal punishment his religion approves. Hirsi Ali herself says she is often told, in so many words, that she's "brought her problems on herself." Now the Dutch prime minister openly says he wants her to deal with them alone.

Fortunately, Hirsi Ali is already back in the United States, under professional, full-time, well-resourced and for the moment privately organized protection. But this week, the Dutch parliament is due to debate her status once again. And once again, the Dutch will be confronted with the facts that Hirsi Ali remains a Dutch citizen; that the threat to her life comes at least in part from groups based in Holland; that she lives abroad because the Dutch political situation forced her to; and that when she speaks out, she does so in defense of what she believes to be Dutch values.

Whether or not the Dutch like it -- and I'm sure most of them don't -- revoking her police protection will send a clear message to the world: that the Dutch are no longer willing to protect their own traditions of free speech. Resources will be found, and she will recover. But will Holland?

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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