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 Friday, 3 January, 2003, 13:30 GMT
Somali woman heads for Dutch parliament
Murdered Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn
Pim Fortuyn's murder made tolerance a key issue

A Somali refugee and former Muslim is a sure bet to become a Netherlands MP for a conservative party in the 22 January general elections.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently came out of a seclusion prompted by death threats made against her after she campaigned against what she called the oppression of women under Islam.

As a woman who was brought up with the tradition of Islam, I think it's not just my right but also my obligation to call these things by the name

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Her role in the election campaign will be a prominent one, highlighting some fundamental differences between western and Islamic culture.

Now back in the limelight, Ms Hirsi Ali has apologised for referring to Islam as a backward religion. But she stands by her criticism of the status of women under Islam.

Bodyguards

Sitting calmly in her office at the VVD party headquarters, with her bodyguards waiting outside, Ms Hirsi Ali reflected on what had caused such a furore.

"The most important verse, which I still refer to, is in the Koran and it is the verse which says women should obey the male members of their families - their fathers and their husbands - and if they do not do that then the husband may beat his wife," she said.

"That's also a side of Islam and I've pointed to it and I've said there are millions of people who carry out just that simple verse.

"Millions of Muslim women all around the world are oppressed in the name [of] Islam.

"And as a woman who was brought up with the tradition of Islam, I think it's not just my right but also my obligation to call these things by name."

Political defection

While in hiding, Ms Hirsi Ali changed her political colours.

She defected from the Labour party to the right-wing, because she felt the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) was more prepared to tackle the problems faced by Muslim women.

There is a small group [of Muslims] who are so enraged that they're willing to do something terrible to me

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Her outspokenness sparked heated reactions from all sides of society, but she says it has gained her the respect of some members of the Muslim community.

"Well, among some Muslims who are not willing to come to [the] foreground because they do not want to face the same dangers, I am welcome," she said.

"But there is also a small group who are so enraged that they're willing to do something terrible to me.

"And I think that is also another horrible side of Islam - the fact that there is absolutely no toleration."

Sensitive issues

Tolerance was a key issue for the Netherlands in 2002.

The murdered populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who was killed nine days before elections in May, also called Islam a backward religion.

He did not want to tolerate immigrants. His self-confessed assassin, an animal rights activist, could not stand his intolerance.

A cornerstone value of Dutch society, tolerance is bound to be central to the January election campaign.

And Ms Hirsi Ali is sure to be, once again, at the centre of controversial debate, where sensitive issues, like asylum seekers and the integration of ethnic minorities, are high on the political agenda.

See also:

16 May 02 | Europe
16 May 02 | Europe
09 Dec 02 | Country profiles
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