ON  PAGE  307  -  ALL  BLACK  LETTERING  IS  MINE  -  Keith Hunt

…….It is time for people who want to reform Islam to try the same techniques. Political speeches are fine, but it's time now for satire, for art, for movies and books. Creative people with a dissident message need to get beyond the mental block that prevents them from treating religion like any other subject—and from treating Islam like any other religion. They need to get their own message across with pictures, not just with words, to people who don't, literally or metaphorically, speak their language.

I told Neelie I had been thinking about doing some kind of art exhibit to spark discussion of women's position in Islam, perhaps a roomful of plaster casts or wax mannequins of women. There would be a woman flogged for adultery, a woman beaten repeatedly, a women imprisoned inside her house. One of them would be wearing a transparent hidjab, and each would have words of the Quran written across her flesh. Beside each statue would be a note translating the Quranic verses and estimating how many women across the world suffer from that verdict from the Quran. The exhibit would illustrate with simple images the suffering endured by women in the name of Allah.

Many well-meaning Dutch people have told me in all earnestness that nothing in Islamic culture incites abuse of women, that this is just a terrible misunderstanding. Men all over the world beat their women, I am constantly informed. In reality, these Westerners are the ones who misunderstand Islam. The Quran mandates these punishments. It gives a legitimate basis for abuse, so that the perpetrators feel no shame and are not hounded by their conscience or their community. I wanted my art exhibit to make it difficult for people to look away from this problem. I wanted secular, non-Muslim people to stop kidding themselves that "Islam is peace and tolerance."

I knew that such an exhibit would be hard for many Muslims to deal with. When you have been brought up to believe that a religion and a holy book are absolute, it is difficult to accept that not everyone thinks that way, and that no book is completely holy. But this was my point: Muslims needed to think about their beliefs, and to think about what these beliefs actually do to human beings.

Neelie got me in touch with Wim van der Krimpen, who ran the City Museum in The Hague and seemed open to my idea for an exhibit, which I wanted to call Submission. He told me security for such an exhibition really wouldn't be the problem I envisaged; his museum was already very secure. He warned me, though, that purchasing mannequins was expensive. I should write up my proposal, and he would discuss it with his board.

I figured nothing would come of it. A member of Parliament writing verses from the Quran on mannequins? The idea was doomed, I thought, so I shelved it.

Jozias van Aartsen asked me to write a policy statement that would summarize my ideas and specific proposals on integration and the emancipation of Muslim women. This would be discussed by the Liberal Party in September, at the annual policy planning meeting. We were in power now, so the stakes were high. Everything I wanted to say had to be in that paper. I involved Arie van der Zwan, an economist whose work I admired, and Paul Scheffer, the critic. We worked on it through the summer and ended up with a twelve-page proposal that was very comprehensive.

In September, when the Liberal Party met to discuss policy planning, I was tense. My statement proposed that the Liberals should come out in favor of closing down existing Muslim schools and refusing to finance new ones, and that the Party should work toward abolishing Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, which allows parents to set up their own schools based on religion. This would be a brave move, in political terms, especially for a party that, at least in Dutch terms, is right wing. I had also proposed dramatically reducing unemployment benefits and abolishing the minimum wage. From my experience as a translator with welfare cases, I knew that easy access to generous unemployment benefits leads to a poverty trap: people in Holland often make more money from welfare than they would in actual jobs. Everyone told me these ideas were far too right wing—meaning that they would lead to a society polarized between wealthy and poor, teeming with beggars and very rich people, with lots of violence and exploitation.

Various people raged against aspects of my paper at the meeting, but the alpha males and alpha females declared their support, so the beta males and females mostly subsided into grumbling. Van Aartsen ended the discussion by proposing that the subject of integration be rescheduled for a meeting of the parliamentary group, where my more senior supporters would be absent.

By the following March, when the much-revised report was finally released, things were already happening in the country. 

The question of ending support for religious schools was in hot debate, and there was much more attention devoted to Muslim women. There were newspaper articles quoting teachers and social workers about girls in Dutch kindergartens who had been excised. Secular, free-thinking intellectuals were bashing each other in the op-ed pages about the virtues and vices of the Prophet Muhammad. I had leaked bits and pieces of my policy document and used aspects of it in other debates, gradually building a coalition. I'd given parts of it to Gerrit Zalm, who was now finance minister, and Rita Verdonk, the integration minister, to use in their own policy documents. Other politicians, from other parties, began to be interested in these issues.

I wanted Parliament to pass a motion that would require the police to register how many honor killings took place in Holland each year. After weeks of wheeling and dealing in corridors, the minister of justice, Piet Donner, did agree to a motion that I had concocted with the Labor Party, but he said he wanted to try it out first, as a "pilot project," in just two police regions. Months later, when the results were announced, Parliament was shocked, and I felt a huge groundswell of support in the country. Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were killed by their families in just those two regions (there are twenty-five such regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exaggerating.

Most of the letters of support I received were from white Dutch people. I did receive a very few letters of support from Muslim women. Many more were at least listening to what I said. As I myself know too well, it takes a long time to dissolve the bars of a mental cage. Almost all the angry letters I received were from Muslims. People called me an Uncle Tom, white on the inside, a traitor to my people. All these ad hominem attacks were basically distractions from the real issue, which wasn't me—it doesn't matter who I am. What matters is abuse, and how it is anchored in a religion that denies women their rights as humans.

What matters is that atrocities against women and children are carried out in Europe. What matters is that governments and societies must stop hiding behind a hollow pretense of tolerance so that they can recognize and deal with the problem.

When I read those angry letters, I could understand the people who wrote them. At one time, I could have written such a letter, too. When you think something is holy and special and you're told it's not, if you're not ready for that information—and especially if you're from an honor background—you feel offended. These individuals I understood, but I was angered by the huffing and puffing of the Muslim organizations funded by the government to look after the community.

These Muslim organizations in Holland are supposed to act as liaisons between Muslims and the local and national governments. But their leadership represents no one. They're not elected. They're comfortably bloated on subsidies and produce virtually no real programs. The men who run those Muslim groups are supposed to represent Muslim women. They know the issues, but they simply never address them. They called me a traitor, but it is they who betray Muslims—Muslim women and children.

One night in May 2004 my father called me. Someone had given him my phone number, and it was as if nothing had happened between us. I said, "Abeh, I'm so happy and grateful that you called me!"

"Ayaan, people say such nasty things about you," he said, sounding old and tired. "I pray for you. Do you pray?"

I asked him if he remembered a story he used to tell us, back when we lived together in Ethiopia, in the headquarters of the Somali opposition force, about a comrade whom my father had invited to prayer. This man answered, "Hirsi, do you see the head of a big bull hanging in the middle of the room?" and my father said no. The comrade responded that to him, God was like that invisible bull's head: he couldn't see it.

"Abeh, I am like that man," I told my father. "You tell me to pray, but when I stand on the mat, the room is empty."

"That man has repented," my father said. "He has just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca. I have prayed for him, and I will pray for you. You, too, will return to the Straight Path."

"Abeh, if I ever return to the faith, you are the first person I will tell," I told him.

My father was quiet. Then he said, "Meanwhile, Ayaan, if anyone asks you 'Do you believe in God,' don't answer. Reply that it is a very rude question."

After a conversation that lasted about an hour, we said good-bye. We have not spoken since.

In February 2003, I met Theo van Gogh for the first time. I was at the house of Theodor Holman, a journalist, and the doorbell rang; a loud, disheveled man rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug. He said, "I'm Theo van Gogh, I voted for you," and flooded me with instructions on how to survive in politics. He stayed and chatted for a bit, then he left, as abruptly as he had stormed in.

I knew a little about van Gogh, one of those Amsterdam personalities, always on TV or in the papers. Theo had unkempt blond hair, he was fat, he smoked a lot, and talked nonstop. A well-known movie director, Theo had a kind of compulsive urge to goad and insult even his best friends, preferably on live TV Many people seemed to hate him.

I didn't see van Gogh again for over a year; there was no reason to. But one afternoon in May 2004, I was attending a friend's wedding in the United States when Theo called on my cell phone. There had been no contact between us since our first encounter, but he'd gotten my number from a friend. There was no "How are you?" or anything like that—he just said, "Ya, van Gogh," and began talking indignantly about a run-in he'd had with a Lebanese Belgian man who called himself Abu Jahjah.

Abu Jahjah ran a group of young Arab men in Belgium he called the Arab European League, and he had been invited to a big debate in Amsterdam at the Happy Chaos Debating Club. Theo had been asked to chair the debate, but Abu Jahjah refused to participate if Theo was chairman. After some of Abu Jahjah's goons threatened him, Theo called Abu Jahjah "the Prophet's pimp" and hell broke loose.

I had no idea what Theo thought I could do about it all. I was sitting in the back of a taxi in New York with a clearly Muslim driver and no bodyguard; it was not an opportune moment for an in-depth chat. I said, "Theo, I can't talk right now. I'll come and see you next week, when I get back."

At the time, I was sheltering a Moroccan girl, Rashida, in my house. Rashida had contacted me in the summer of 2003; she needed help to escape from her father and brothers, who beat her because she had a Dutch boyfriend. At twenty-two, she wanted to become an actress, and I found something poignant about her—perhaps an echo of myself. I wanted to help her, but I had no idea how someone would go about starting an acting career; now it occurred to me that I could take her with me to meet Theo van Gogh, the famous Amsterdam filmmaker.

Theo's most recent film was Najib and Julia, about the relationship between a native Dutch girl and a Moroccan boy. Theo had an open sensibility, an antenna that picked up distress signals when most people in Holland wanted to believe that everything was nice and cozy. He thought there were too many things that people didn't dare say for fear of giving offense. He saw himself as a Fassbinder character: the Lord of Misrule. His house was a shambles, but he focused intensely on his work. He was a mess of contradictions, an impossible man, a genius in some ways.

At that first meeting, Rashida and I stayed for about an hour. Theo promised Rashida that if she finished acting school he would do a real screen test for her. We discussed his complaint about Abu Jahjah. I said, "Why get angry? You're a filmmaker. Why don't you make a movie about it?"

Somehow we got onto my idea for an art exhibit on Muslim women. Theo said, "Just do it in video. Write a screenplay. Any idiot can write a screenplay. All you have to do is write 'Exterior, Day' and 'Interior, Night.'"

He meant it. Theo was offering to make Submission as a short movie. At first I didn't take it seriously, but he kept calling me over the next few weeks, urging me to get going on a script. I could do it after Parliament broke, he said. We could film it over the summer. I told Theo I would give it a try.

A few days later, I had a meeting with a production group from a uniquely Dutch TV show, Summer Guests, which had invited me to appear at the end of August. On this show, people talk for three hours about themselves and select TV clips that have been meaningful to them personally. Some people show old sitcoms; others show historic sports events or a fragment from a documentary or children's program. Viewers are caught up in the pleasure of remembering all these shared Dutch experiences as the footage is shown. Having no shared Dutch experience to speak of, I asked the production people whether they would consider showing a short film on which Theo van Gogh and I were working. I said we could have it ready by August 29, when the show taped. I showed them an outline of the script. They said it would be unusual, but they agreed.

I called Theo and we decided to give it a try.

The film Theo and I made, Submission: 

Part One, is first and foremost about the relation of the individual with Allah. In Islam, unlike in Christianity and Judaism, the relationship of the individual to God is one of total submission, slave to master. To Muslims, worship of God means total obedience to Allah's rules and total abstinence from the thoughts and deeds that He has declared forbidden in the Quran. To modernize Islam and adapt it to contemporary ideals would require a dialogue with God, even disagreement with God's rules; but as Islam is conceived, any kind of disagreement with Allah is insolence because it assumes equality with Him.

The Quran tells a vivid story about how Satan was expelled from the realm of angels after Allah created Adam. Allah ordered all the angels to bow to Adam, but Satan refused to obey. He talked back to Allah: Why should he, an elevated angel, bow down to a creature made of mud? Allah threw Satan out of Paradise, and from then on Satan has tried to lure Adam and his offspring from the Straight Path. For a human being to doubt any of Allah's rules is to fall into Satan's clutches.

Probably every Muslim is taught that story, and as a child I thought of it often. Now, as an adult, I felt that liberation of Muslim women must be preceded by liberation of the mind from this rigid, dogmatic obedience to Allah's dictates. Allah is constantly referred to in the Quran as "the most compassionate, the most merciful"; He also says several times that he has given us a will of our own. In that case, I wonder, why would He mind a little debate?

When I sat down to write the script for our film, I decided to use the format of prayer to bring about dialogue with Allah. I pictured a woman standing in the center of a room. In the four corners of the room, four women depict restrictive verses from the Quran. The woman in the middle of the room is veiled, but her veil is transparent at the front, opaque at the back. The transparency is necessary because it challenges Allah to look at what he created: the body of woman. On her torso is written the opening verse of the Quran, the "Sura Fatiha," which every Muslim is required to recite first, at every prayer:

In the name of God, the merciful, the beneficent.

Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds, the merciful, the beneficent,

ruler of the day of judgment! Thee we serve and Thee we ask for aid. Guide us in the right path, the path of those to whom Thou art gracious;

not of those with whom Thou art wroth; nor of those who err.

The woman observes the rules of prayer: her head is lowered and her gaze is fixed on the front of the mat, where she will place her forehead when she bows to express total obedience. But after she recites the Sura Fatiha, she does something unusual: she raises her head. 

The camera pans to the first woman, who tells Allah that she has obeyed all his injunctions, but she now lies in a corner, bleeding. She has fallen in love, and for that she has been flogged. She ends, very simply, with the sentence, "I may no longer submit."

Another of the women is repelled by the odor of her husband. She has been forced to marry him and now is forced to submit to him sexually, for the Quran says, When your wives have purified themselves, ye may approach them in any manner, time or place. 

A third woman is beaten by her husband at least once a week: As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, scourge them and banish them to beds apart. 

A fourth is a young girl who lives cloistered in her own home. She has been raped by her uncle, and now she is pregnant; she will be punished for having sex outside marriage.

I called the film Submission, Part One, because submission to Islam causes many other kinds of suffering. 

I saw this as the first in a series of films that would tackle the master-slave relationship of God and the individual. My message was that the Quran is an act of man, not of God. We should be free to interpret it; we should be permitted to apply it to the modern era in a different way, instead of performing painful contortions to try to recreate the circumstances of a horrible distant past. My intention was to liberate Muslim minds so that Muslim women—and Muslim men, too—might be freer. Men, too, are forced to obey inhumane laws.

It was a simple film to make. Theo wasn't interested in writing up proposals for grants and subsidies: he said we should just make a ten-minute film and see what happened. I finished the script at the end of July. Theo rented a studio and hired an actress and a makeup woman, and a few props.

We did discuss the danger of making a film with this message. 

Having already spoken out about Islam, I knew how dangerous it was. I warned Theo; I wanted him to keep his name off the project. But Theo called himself the village idiot. He said, "Nobody shoots the village idiot." He believed that I was the one who would be attacked, and nobody would bother with him.

The movie almost didn't happen. We shot it on Monday, July 26.

Theo wanted me to cut the script and make it five minutes long; I insisted on ten. He lost his temper, and yelled, "I'm not here just to help you resolve your childhood traumas!" I stared at him and then walked away. He apologized.

Actually, Theo was probably right: five minutes would have been more effective. I called him a few weeks later, to tell him so, and he said, "No, the film's perfect. I'm proud of what I've done."

Before Submission aired on TV, I thought it would be courteous to show it to the leaders of the Liberal Party. I also wanted to persuade them that Theo should be given more security, because he insisted on keeping his name on the film.

They all reacted differently. Frits Bolkestein, the wise old leader of the Liberals, who was now almost seventy, paced up and down his office with worry. He said, "My God, Ayaan, you're in danger." I felt awful. I thought, "I shouldn't have shown it to him, I've worried this poor elderly man." In hindsight, Bolkestein really understood what was happening, as did Neelie. I tried to reassure both of them: nothing would happen to me, because the DKDB was protecting me; we only needed to worry about getting protection for Theo.

Gerrit Zalm was unmoved. He simply asked if all this stuff was really in the Quran; because it was, he concluded that there was no reason I shouldn't use it, although he thought it was unfortunate that our actress was half-naked. Johan Remkes, the minister of the interior, just said, "Couldn't yon have found a better-looking chick?" Remkes thought it was a rather amateurish movie; he had no idea why I was making such a fuss about security. I said, "Will you make sure Theo van Gogh is safe?" and he said, "If that becomes necessary, Ayaan, we will, of course."

Then I showed Submission to the defense minister, Henk Kamp. He was emotionally caught up by the film itself. He said, "What a cruel world we live in." It was moving to see him so stirred by it. I asked him "What about security?" and Kamp said, "Muslims have had a lot to take this past year. They've been hardened—they won't react to this."

And it seemed to be true. Submission aired on August 29, and there was no huge reaction. Everything seemed to be calm.




Keith Hunt