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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Liberalism under pressure

By Lisa Jardine

Dutch icons
The Dutch are known for many things, including tolerance of outsiders
The removal of an immigrant raising awkward political questions is a warning sign over the future of the tradition of free speech and tolerance in Holland.

There are times when a small event raises an issue of enormous importance. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born politician and women's rights activist, is leaving Holland for good.

You may never have heard of her, I'll tell you more about her in a moment. It's a strange irony that a country which has for centuries welcomed all those fleeing persecution should find it impossible to continue to provide Hirsi Ali with a refuge.

The Dutch have had a reputation for tolerance for almost five hundred years. By the 1500s the Dutch writer and educationalist Erasmus of Rotterdam was already disseminating broadmindedness and inclusion to the whole of the western world through his Latin treatises and textbooks.

In July 1572, the Protestant leader of the northern Netherlands, William I of Orange - still celebrated today as the father of the Dutch nation - publicly proclaimed the right of all individuals to freedom of thought and worship at a political assembly at Dordrecht.

He vowed "to protect and preserve the country from foreign tyrants and oppressors", and he promised the Dutch people that "the free exercise of religion should be allowed as well to Papists as Protestants, without any molestation or impediment".

When, a month later, Catholic France turned on her own Protestants, and tens of thousands of Calvinist Huguenots were brutally murdered in the St Bartholomew's Day massacre, it was Holland which took in large numbers of the ensuing flood of refugees. It was Holland too which for centuries welcomed the Jews, displaced from all over Europe by Christian persecution.

Immigrants' contribution

Holland's immigrants have played a vital part in her rise to power and wealth - skilled Huguenot artisans were the motor behind Dutch clock- and instrument-making, Jewish commercial acumen helped build the Dutch East India Company.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is leaving Holland

Artists and musicians from the two communities made rich contributions to the golden age of Dutch culture. Holland became famous for her diversity, her intermingled lifestyles and variety, an object lesson to the rest of Europe in how tolerance could build a stronger nation.

Again in the 1950s, Holland offered a European home to immigrants from the former Dutch colonies - Surinam, Indonesia and the Moluccas. From the 1960s onwards it was Moroccan Muslims who were drawn to the Netherlands by her booming economy.

As the pace of immigration quickened across Europe, the Dutch remained committed to their historic belief in open borders and readiness to accept and tolerate difference. By the beginning of the 21st Century more than 10% of Holland's population of 16.3 million were "non-Western"immigrants. Close to one million of these are Muslims.

The assassination in 2002 of the right-wing, anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn was a rude awakening for many among the broadly open-minded Dutch. It was a loss of innocence - a looking up and seeing as if for the first time (as the French did during the riots in the Paris suburbs at the end of last year) the ghettos in the suburbs, high immigrant unemployment, disenchanted youth, downtrodden Muslim women.

In hiding

The murder of film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a Dutch-born Islamic extremist sent a second traumatic shock-wave through the nation. Van Gogh was attacked as he cycled through central Amsterdam, and savagely killed in front of horrified bystanders.

Theo Van Gogh
Theo van Gogh's murder sent shockwaves through Holland

His attacker impaled a five-page written statement on van Gogh's body declaring the killing an act of retribution for a film van Gogh had made drawing attention to the abuse of women within the immigrant Islamic community.

Most of the accusations in the letter pinned to van Gogh's chest were aimed at his collaborator and screenwriter, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Hirsi Ali arrived in Holland as an asylum-seeker in 1992, fleeing a forced marriage. There she campaigned tirelessly to draw attention to the abuses suffered by Holland's deprived Islamic women. In 2003 she became a member of Parliament for the Dutch Liberal Party, and successfully raised the profile of her cause, earning widespread admiration. She attracted fierce anger, however, from radical elements in the immigrant Islamic community.

Hirsi Ali was forced into hiding on the day of Theo van Gogh's murder. Ever since, she has had to have constant police protection, forced into an increasingly lonely isolation, ostensibly for her own safety. Three weeks ago, Ayaan Hirsi Ali resigned from the Dutch Parliament.

In the face of a growing clamour from both the Muslim and the secular communities to silence her, she has decided to re-settle in Washington. In spite of her imminent departure, she has now been told by the Immigration Minister, Rita Verdonk that she is to be stripped of her Dutch citizenship because - out of fear - she did not use her true name on her original application form.

'Canary in the mineshaft'

Since taking office in 2003, Verdonk has ordered citizenship tests for immigrants, raised visa fees by hundreds of euros and began imprisoning failed asylum-seekers before deporting them. She has shown herself resolutely hard-line in a number of other high-profile immigration cases. Dutch popular opinion appears to be running her way.

Holland has been seen as the archetype of western liberalism

What are we to think of all of this? I have heard several comments to the effect that Holland has "at last got her come-uppance" - as if the Dutch were the last Europeans to understand that a long-standing tradition of easy-going liberal tolerance had finally come to an end under the pressure of global migration and post-9/11 polarisation in the "war on terror".

But this is surely the wrong way to look at this sequence of events. The cutting down of an individual with a flamboyant voice and message (Fortuyn was openly gay, van Gogh was a maverick media polemicist) strikes a direct, targeted blow against the values of liberal western nations. Beyond the random terror of hijackings and bombs, it is aimed directly at freedom of speech - at our entitlement to air our views without fear of reprisal.

Holland is the canary in the mine-shaft. As we in Britain watch with fascination, the Dutch Left and Right appear to be coming together in maintaining that immigration barriers have to be put in place, and hard-line legislation enacted to control forcibly those who are already there - exactly as is happening in other, less historically-openminded European countries like our own.

When the Dutch canary stops singing, we should beware. It will tell us that we have sacrificed personal liberty and freedom of speech out of fear of assassination on some street corner in broad daylight.

It is not easy to resist the urge to quiet an irritant voice like Hirsi Ali's. But each of us has to understand that the price of communal silence - the decision not to talk openly about difficult-to-resolve issues of faith and mores - is too high for us to pay. The cut and thrust of political debate, public controversy, and stated positions unacceptable to particular groups, is a vital part of a healthy political state.

Twelve years after his Dordrecht speech, William I of Orange was assassinated by Balthasar Gérard, a fanatical Catholic, who had wangled his way into William's home with a new-fangled wheel-lock pistol concealed in his sleeve - his deadly act the sixteenth-century equivalent of a suicide-bombing. The northern Netherlands reeled, the ruling elite closed ranks; repressive political measures were taken.

Eventually, though, the States General recovered their Erasmian principles and shook off the fear and blind panic which had followed the calamitous event. The values William of Orange had fought for were too precious - too fundamental - to be discarded lightly.

She isn't being 'removed'. She's leaving of her own accord. Assuming she is being removed (even if she isn't) is it because she asks difficult questions ,or because she lied on her application? They can't send the signal that lying is acceptable.

An interesting article on a vital subject. I understood from reading elsewhere that there were other significant anomalies in the original story around request for asylum, much more than a false name. If that is the case, the author would serve us better to include all known information and then proffer her own opinion.
William Roche, Toulouse

Rather uninformed article. For example, it misses that Hirsi Ali supported the very laws that stripped her of her citizenship. She was a member of parliament from the same party that upheld them so vigourously. Her courage to speak out in the face of death threats is offset by the blatant generalisations and falsehoods she makes about Islam. Nevertheless, I am sad to see her leave, if only because it pleases Islamist hardliners, who are the ones that should be thrown out of Europe instead.
Klaus, Copenhagen, Denmark

I am Dutch, living in London. I have followed the Hirsi Ali case in the Dutch media. The main reason why she lost her Dutch citizenship was that she lied on her imigration application. There was apparently no forced marriage, she put down a wrong name and date of birth (both she claimed for her own protection) and she came from a stable African country, not the suppressed area she claimed. Therefore there was no reason for her claim asylum in the first place. Rita Verdonk had to withdraw Ali's passport as she just had another highly public case where she acted the same. If she would not have done this for Hirsi Ali (a party member of her's), it would look like favouritism. I agree that libiralism and freedom of speech are some of the fundaments of Dutch society, but to quote the latin phrase. "Dura lex sed lex", the law is hard, but it is the law...
Alexander, London

Your article shows how complex the issue of tolerance really is, and how it's impossible to be entirely liberal on values. By opening the gates to everyone, The Netherlands (and other European nations too) have allowed in people whose values are not the same. This is a recipe for disaster, with no easy solution.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

It is curious that at a time of racist hysteria regarding illegal immigrants, the USA is so ready to turn a blind eye to someone who admits lying on previous immigration applications. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not exist the State Department would have to create her!
bravetimur, gainesville usa

Ummm... I think falsifying your asylum application does not mean you can then moan at the State for not allowing you to stay. Just because the person falsifying the application happens to say stuff we like doesn't change the basic rules at play here.

not only did Ayaan Hirsi Ali not put her correct name on the initial application form - she also lied about where she was from, why she was seeking asylum and also lied about her background - don't make her out to be the wronged party in all this. Maybe if she had done things legitimately instead of taking advantage of a liberal and open, accepting community to further her own lifestyle and aims then she would not be in this position - there are plenty of people around the world who play by the book, abide by the rules and get nowhere with no help - we should not sympathise with those who are caught out trying to lie and cheat their way round the system regardless of motives for doing so.
s. diamond, stockport

The author appears to make connections where they don't exist; re-writing history if you like. Hirshi was stripped of her citizenship because she obtained it under false pretences. About the forced marriage and the hadrships that Hirshi claimed to have fleed from, these were also lies (a Dutch TV documentary confirmed this - they interviewed Hirshi's family, not in Somalia (where she claimed to have 'escaped' from), but in Kenya (and they weren't poor either). Hirshi lied when she applied for asylum, and subsequently when she obtained her citizenship. She was a member of the governing party, and one of their main manifesto points was to do with immigration. They could NOT be seen to change the rules for one of their own.
Nawaz, UK

This piece is very interesting, yet it fails to mention the fact that there are many discrepancies in Ayaan Hisri Ali's story to the Dutch imigration services. She lied about her age and a few other details on her asylum case. These are what prompted her to leave the Netherlands. As for her views, although everyone has a right to freedom of speech, the comments made by Miss Ali were very offensive to Muslims, she generalised what her experiences within her ethnic community were and portrayed these as problem with Muslims in general.
Arif Zaman, London

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not being removed to "quiet an irritant voice". She's being removed because she obtained Dutch citizenship by breaking Dutch law. Lisa Jardine is trying to create a problem where a problem does not exist. Hirsi Ali's departure is certainly not going to take away Dutch freedom of speech.
Barbara, London, England

This story seems, to me, not to be about the Netherlands losing it's free speech and tolerance, but about how certain sections of the Muslim community in Holland do not endorse free speech, especially when it comes to home truths from within their own community. Is this another sign that perhaps the Muslim community needs to be accepted more into the West, or that the West has to teach Muslims about the values of free speech, so that not everyone who speaks their mind is attacked?
Andrew Griffiths, Bristol

It's worth pointing out that mr. Fortuyn was shot by a Dutch environmentalist, not a Muslim or even an immigrant.
>Filip Van Roosbroeck, Antwerp, Belgium

The ides of The Netherlands being a tolerant and accepting country is long out of date. The Dutch notion of tolerance is one of "you can do what you like so long as it doesn't bother me. Once it does bother other people then it has to stop." In the past, various communities have co-existed in The Netherlands - supposedly happily - simply because their paths never interconnected. Jewish, Catholic and Protestant communities all exist but never speak to each other. It is no coincidence that in all of the countries from which the Nazis transported the Jews, they were most successful in The Netherlands. Very few people will put their own neck on the line for someone they do not know personally. Nothing has fundamentally changed in Dutch society since that time. Attitudes are still the same. The areas of difficulty now are emerging because the large Muslim community is realising that it does have a voice and is demanding to be heard. This is out of step with the "know your place" style of Dutch tolerance.
Dawn , Amsterdam (ex UK)

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