AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - For three years Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali galvanized Dutch society with a frank account of her traumatic past and her conviction that Islam is a violent, misogynous religion.
That conviction led to death threats, the murder of her associate, filmmaker Theo van Gogh and, her critics say, the alienation of precisely those she aimed to engage as relations between Muslims and non-Muslims deteriorated as never before.
Now almost a year since the former Dutch parliamentarian hit headlines worldwide for admitting she lied to gain asylum in the Netherlands, many of the Dutch-Muslim women Hirsi Ali sought to stir and inspire state bluntly they are relieved she is gone.
The 37-year-old now works for a U.S. think-tank, while her international profile as an ex-Muslim critic of Islam soars.
“I am glad that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is gone, because now the tone has softened, it has become less extreme and tensions have eased,” said Nermin Altintas, who runs an education centre for migrant women.
Hirsi Ali is held responsible by many in the Muslim community for “Islamising” the Netherlands’ migrants, polarizing communities and diverting attention from those trying to boost integration in what they see as a more constructive approach.
“Let her call one woman forward and show how she really helped her,” said Famile Arslan, a 35-year-old family lawyer.
“We worked for 10, 15, 20 years to help emancipate Muslim women... and she stole the respect we should have had as grass- roots movements working for change.”
In the Netherlands, where the majority of the country’s 1 million Muslims are of Moroccan or Turkish background, some of Hirsi Ali’s pronouncements on Islam met astonishment.
“Her statements on Islam were very harsh. I have a completely different experience of Islam... as I come from a Turkish cultural background,” said Altintas.
Hirsi Ali caused uproar by calling Islam “backward,” and by branding the prophet Mohammad a pedophile and a tyrant. However, it was the film “Submission” she wrote for Dutch television which most provoked.
In the short film, an actress whose naked body is covered with a thin veil appeals to God about the violence she believes she must endure in his name, while in other scenes naked women cower with texts from the Koran inscribed on their bodies.
“If she wanted to campaign against violence against women then she shouldn’t have written the Koran text on the body, because that was offensive to many of the religious women she claimed she was trying to help,” said Altintas.
“Her methods were such that rather than attracting Muslim women she pushed them away... She polarized things,” said 19-year-old student Suzan Yucel from Eindhoven.
The film’s director Theo van Gogh was gunned down on an Amsterdam street in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan, who stabbed a note to his body addressed to Hirsi Ali warning she would be next.
The Dutch watched in disbelief as their country, once prized as a liberal, multicultural model, slid into a mood of mutual hostility and tit-for-tat attacks on mosques and churches.
“I was restricted by male macho culture, and my migrant background... but you cannot use Islam as an excuse,” said Arslan, whose parents from eastern Turkey were illiterate.
“I have a very positive experience of Islam.”
Yucel agreed that Hirsi Ali ascribes problems to Islam which have other, more complex roots.
“Islam is interpreted by people and in Turkey the interpretation is very different from Somalia... Culture and religion got mixed up with Hirsi Ali,” she said.
Hirsi Ali arrived in the Netherlands from Kenya in 1992, unable to speak a word of Dutch and having fled an arranged marriage and abusive family who had her circumcised as a child.
She took odd jobs, studied Dutch, and began work as a translator for asylum seekers before studying political science and working as a political researcher.
In 2003 she entered parliament for the VVD (Liberals), while at the same time her graceful looks, soft voice and compelling vulnerability made her a media star.
Last year Hirsi Ali admitted to lying to win asylum in the Netherlands after it emerged that she had arrived in the country via Germany, but said her party knew of the deception.
The ensuing row saw the then immigration minister threaten to strip her of her Dutch citizenship, and a small party left the coalition in protest, bringing down the government.
After resigning as a Dutch parliamentarian in May 2006, Hirsi Ali stated: “I am going away, but the questions remain. The questions about the future of Islam in our country, the suppression of women in Islamic culture and the integration of the many Muslims in the West.”
Yucel, who with other young Muslims runs a website called “We are staying here” (www.wijblijvenhier.nl), says she and her cohorts are examining the same issues but, unlike Hirsi Ali, with a view to diffusing tension and staying.
The former politician has been the subject of lively debates on the site, with some bloggers saying she deserves respect for exposing phony tolerance in the Netherlands, and daring to speak her mind despite the death threats.
But the dominant sentiment is relief that she has left the Dutch public arena.
While some are hopeful that a new centrist Dutch government with the country’s first Muslim ministers might usher in a more supportive climate, Yucel points out that anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, who broke away from the VVD Liberals to found an independent party, made big gains.
Wilders, also subject to death threats, said recently Dutch Muslims must throw away half the Koran if they want to stay.
But Yucel says she is optimistic for the long-term, and proud to be a Dutch-Muslim who is free to wear a headscarf in places she would not be able to in Turkey.
“The Muslim community here will change... This is still a new environment and we have to get used to it.”