The High Cost of Free Speech

The Dutch government's decision to discontinue security protection for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken critic of Islam, has touched off an international debate over the limits and costs of freedom of expression.

Hirsi Ali, an author and former member of the Dutch parliament, has lived under a death threat since 2004 that was delivered when filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in the streets of Amsterdam. In a letter addressed to Hirsi Ali -- impaled in van Gogh's chest by his Islamist assassin Mohammed Bouyeri -- the Somali-born immigrant to the Netherlands was threatened with destruction in the name of Islam.

Hirsi Ali had worked with van Gogh, a descendent of the famous painter and a ubiquitous political figure in Dutch society. The two produced a short film titled "Submission" in which Koranic verses were projected across the bodies of naked women in an attempt to protest what they saw as the Islamic abuse of women.

Hirsi Ali first came to the Netherlands in a successful attempt to escape an arranged marriage in her homeland. Although originally a pious Muslim, she repudiated her faith and spoke out for freedom of expression and against Islamic practices that she deemed harmful to women.

Coming to America

The ire raised by her public commentary had already required her to seek protection before to van Gogh's assassination. After the murder, Hirsi Ali went into hiding, and the Dutch government provided a round-the-clock security detail.

Last year, she moved to the United States to take a post at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. At the time, the Dutch government agreed to continue footing the bill for her protection, about $3 million a year.

But the conservative-led Dutch parliament this year decided to halt the payments at the beginning of October. Minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin justified the government's stance by saying the government would continue to pay for Hirsi Ali's protection so long as she resided within the Netherlands.

To her supporters, the action was an act of bad faith.

In an open letter published in the French daily Libération, a group of French intellectuals today accused the Dutch government of "inexcusable cowardice."

"The Netherlands has closed its eyes to a world in which terrorism, intolerance and totalitarianism know no bounds," the group wrote in the letter.

Hirsi Ali has also criticized the government's decision. In an interview last week with the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, famed for publishing cartoons of the Prophet that many Muslims found insulting, Hirsi Ali poured scorn on the Dutch action.

"The decision to withdraw the security detail was not an issue of money but of principle," she told Jyllands Posten. "It costs less to have me protected by an American firm than it costs for me to be safeguarded in the Netherlands.

"I think the government would like to send a message to others in Holland that they should shut their mouths," she said.

Earlier in the week, Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen criticized the Dutch government for ceasing the payments. He also offered Hirsi Ali a place to live under protection in Denmark.

"Hirsi Ali must never be left in the lurch," Rasmussen told the Dutch daily De Volkskrant.

Paying for Protection

The American Enterprise Institute has set up a fund to help raise money for Hirsi Ali's protection. The organization said it was processing private donations to arrange for her security. Another fund would also be set up in the future to ensure the safety of other endangered Muslim dissidents, The Associated Press reported.

Despite the international furor, opinion within the Netherlands has largely backed the parliament's decision. And, surprisingly, those arguing for the continued payment of Hirsi Ali's security costs have largely come from outside her supporter base.

The voices calling for continued funding within the Netherlands have mainly come from the left, according to Bibi van Ginkel, senior researcher at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch international relations think tank.

"She's a high-profile person, whether or not you agree with her beliefs. The left has overlooked [her beliefs] and decided that she is an important person who contributes to an important debate, so they think that's something they do need to support, and as she is a Dutch citizen, they believe that for practical reasons the government should extend the financial support until an appropriate alternative is found," said van Ginkel.

Still, regardless of the opposition coming from the left, the Ministry of Justice reported that an overwhelming majority of the Tweede Kamer (the lower house of the States-General of the Netherlands) had endorsed the Cabinet's resolution, according to De Volkskrant.

Arnold van Burg, a history and politics student at Leiden University, explained that the unwavering Dutch attitude partly results from a decline in Hirsi Ali's status within the Netherlands.

"I think her role is largely fulfilled here. She's lost her momentum in Holland," he said. "She was a person who gained momentum at a certain time, but now she's dead in Holland."