Cliff May

Theo van Gogh was a modern Western man, a believer in reason, tolerance and multiculturalism. And so it is perhaps fitting that his last words were: “Can’t we talk about this?”

He asked that question of Muhammad Bouyeri, a Militant Islamist outraged over Submission, a film van Gogh had directed, a film which took an unsparing look at the oppression of women in Islamic lands. In broad daylight, on a street in van Gogh’s hometown of Amsterdam, Bouyeri responded to the filmmaker’s appeal for civil discourse by shooting him, sawing into his throat with a butcher knife and then stabbing a five-page letter into his chest.

Prominently named in that letter was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the remarkable woman who wrote Submission. Bouyeri vowed to kill her as well.

Such intense hatred and violence is difficult for many of us to comprehend. Not so Hirsi Ali. Growing up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, she experienced multiple forms of cruelty and became, for a time, a devout believer in the radical brand of Islam preached by the Muslim Brotherhood. She has now written Infidel, a book about her extraordinary geographical, spiritual and intellectual journey. Anyone who aspires to understand the global conflict now underway — why it’s happening and where it may be leading — needs to listen to her.

Hirsi Ali’s personal story is by now familiar. She grew up in poverty and on the run — the daughter of a celebrated Somali revolutionary. When she was 22 years old, her father arranged for her to marry a man he thought suitable. She ran away, settling in the Netherlands where she cleaned toilets and worked on a factory assembly line. Before long, she also learned fluent Dutch, attended university and was elected a member of parliament.

But after van Gogh’s murder, the threats against her life and the controversy surrounding her views impelled her to leave Holland for Washington where Christopher DeMuth, the far-sighted president of the American Enterprise Institute, gave her a place to think and write about freedom, religion and ideology.

In the U.S., Hirsi Ali may be safer from physical attack than she would be in Europe. But nothing can protect her from the attempts at character assassination emanating from the pages of the Economist, Newsweek, The Washington Post and other elite publications.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.