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Dutch feminist defends right to offend others

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The murder of filmmaker Michael Moore left Hollywood shaken and outraged.

A fundamentalist Baptist cut the liberal icon's throat in broad daylight on a New York City street after the release of "Submission," his movie with actress Susan Sarandon that attacked the Religious Right for oppressing women. As a final symbolic act, the killer used his knife to pin an anti-abortion tract to Moore's chest, with an explicit warning that Sarandon was next.

All of that is fiction, of course.

Still, it's interesting to contemplate how the media would respond if a crime like this did occur. Would reporters rush to cover an address by Sarandon if she ventured into public to berate the fundamentalists? Would Hollywood find a way to honor her during the Academy Awards for her stand against religious tyranny and for artistic freedom?

Moore and Sarandon are alive and well. However, the Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains in hiding after the 2004 murder of her artistic partner, the brash and profane filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The duo's "Submission" linked verses in the Koran with violence against women and then showed the holy words written on the skin of semi-naked actresses.

A Dutch-born Islamist decided to retaliate. Before killing van Gogh on a street in Amsterdam, Muhammad Bouyeri was known for translating a 14th century tract entitled "The Obligation to Kill Anyone who Insults the Prophet." He shot van Gogh 15 times and slashed his throat before impaling on the body a five-page letter threatening Hirsi Ali, who had been elected to the Dutch parliament a year earlier.

Hirsi Ali has continued her writing and political work as best she can. She also risked a recent public appearance in Berlin to rage against Muslims who have marched and rioted to protest those 12 Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

"I am here to defend the right to offend," said Hirsi Ali, a native of Somalia who fled to the Netherlands as a refugee. "Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers the caricatures in the cartoon affair. These intellectuals live off free speech but they accept censorship. They hide their mediocrity of mind behind noble-sounding terms such as 'responsibility' and 'sensitivity.' "Shame on those politicians who stated that publishing and re-publishing the drawings was 'unnecessary,' 'insensitive,' 'disrespectful' and 'wrong.' Shame on those European companies in the Middle East that advertised 'we are not Danish' or 'we don't sell Danish products.' This is cowardice. Nestle chocolates will never taste the same after this, will they?"

For her Muslim critics, the Berlin speech merely confirmed that Hirsi Ali is a "loyal slave" of her new European masters," according to Al-Jazeera commentator Ali Al-Hail, a media professor at the University of Qatar. As an apostate Muslim, she has been telling lies about Islam in exchange for a "fistful of Euros" so she can fill "a gap in her starving abdomen," he said.

Nevertheless, it's important to note that few Western liberals have rushed to defend or praise Hirsi Ali, he said, via e-mail. Her press coverage has been thin.

"The American left has been so silent since the assassination of Theo Van Gogh," said Al-Hail, who recently taught as a Fulbright scholar at Simpson College in Iowa. "I have also observed this silence. As to why? Probably, probably, the American left is sympathetic to Muslims over the current crises."

Hirsi Ali is convinced that her usual allies are afraid. This crisis, she said, has underlined the "widespread fear among authors, filmmakers, cartoonists and journalists who wish to describe, analyze or criticize intolerant aspects of Islam. It has also revealed the presence of a considerable minority in Europe who do not understand or will not accept the workings of liberal democracy."

While it is wrong to stereotype Muslims, Hirsi Ali stressed she believes the prophet Muhammad made mistakes — especially on women's issues, gay rights, free speech and the separation of mosque and state.

Thus, she said, "I think it is right to make critical drawings and films of Muhammad. I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny. Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad's teachings should refrain from drawing him is not a request for respect but a demand for submission."

Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.