The Sakharov Prize

The European Parliament´s Sakharov Prize is intended to honour exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression. The prize is named after the Soviet scientist Andrei Dmitrijevic Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, after he established the Committee for the defense of human rights and political victims in 1970´s. Like Andrei Sakharov himself, all the winners of the prize have shown how much courage it takes to defend human rights and freedom of expression. This prize is accompanied by a cash reward of € 50, 000 but this reward cannot express the courage and the strength which are expended by all winners and nominated people to fight for human rights and for freedom of thought.

A proposal has been made to put forward Ayaan Hirsi Ali for this award.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-Dutch feminist and atheist activist, writer and politician. She is a prominent critic of Islam, and her screenplay for Theo van Gogh’s movie Submission led to death threats, as well as to the assassination of Theo van Gogh.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born into a Majerteen family in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was a prominent member of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front and a leading figure in the Somalian Revolution. Shortly after she was born, her father was imprisoned due to his opposition to Somalia’s Siad Barre government.

Hirsi Ali’s father had studied abroad and was opposed to female genital cutting, but while he was imprisoned, Hirsi Ali’s grandmother had the traditional procedure performed on five-year-old Hirsi Ali.

When she was eight, Hirsi Ali’s family left Somalia for Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, and eventually settled in Kenya. She sympathised with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and wore a hijab together with her school uniform, which was unusual at the time but gradually became more common. She agreed with the fatwa against British writer Salman Rushdie that was declared in reaction to the publication of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. After completing secondary school, she attended a secretarial course at Valley Secretarial College in Nairobi for one year. At this time, Hirsi Ali read English adventure stories such as the Nancy Drew series, containing modern heroine archetypes which overstepped the limits traditionally imposed by religion and society.

She sought and obtained political asylum in the Netherlands in 1992, under circumstances that later became the center of a political controversy. Hirsi Ali states that in 1992 her father arranged to marry her to a distant cousin. She says that she objected to this both on general grounds (she states that she dreaded being forced to submit to a stranger, someone with “the Holy Book on his side” who could force himself on her sexually), and on specific objections to this particular cousin, saying that he was a “bigot” and an “idiot”.

It was planned that she would join her husband in Canada after obtaining a visa while in Germany. Members of her family have disputed the story of her forced marriage. According to Hirsi Ali, she spent her time in Germany frantically trying to devise a way to escape her unwanted marriage. Ultimately she decided that she would claim to want to visit a relative in the Netherlands, but once she had arrived, seek help from that relative and claim asylum.

Once in the Netherlands she requested political asylum, and obtained a residence permit. It is not known on what grounds she received political asylum, though she has admitted that she had lied by devising a false story about having to flee Mogadishu and spending time in refugee camps on the border between Somalia and Kenya. In reality, she did spend time in those camps, but in order to help relatives who were trapped there; she was already safely settled in Kenya at the time open warfare erupted in the Somali capital. She gave a false name and date of birth to the Dutch immigration authorities, something she says was necessary in order to escape retaliation by her clan. She is known in the West by her assumed name, Hirsi Ali, instead of her original name, Hirsi Magan. Hirsi Ali received a residence permit within three weeks of her arrival in the Netherlands.

After being granted asylum she held various short-term jobs, ranging from cleaning to mail sorting. She then worked as a translator at a Rotterdam refugee centre which, according to a friend interviewed by The Observer newspaper, marked her deeply. She says that she had been an avid reader from childhood, and access to new books and ways of thought stretched her imagination and frightened her at the same time. She says that Freud’s work placed her in contact with an alternative moral system, one that was not based on religion. During this time she took courses in Dutch and a one-year course in social work. She states that she was impressed with how well Dutch society seemed to function and, in an effort to better understand how this system had developed, studied political science at Leiden University until 2000.

Between 1995 and 2001 she also worked as an independent Somali-Dutch interpreter and translator, frequently coming into contact with Somali women in asylum centres, hostels for battered women, and the Dutch immigration and naturalisation service (IND, Immigratie en Naturalisatiedienst – Immigration and Naturalisation Service). While working for the IND, she saw inside the workings of the Dutch immigration system and became critical of the way it handled asylum seekers. As a result of her education and experiences, Hirsi Ali speaks six languages: English, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Amharic and Dutch.

In 2003 she was elected a member of the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Dutch parliament), representing the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). A political crisis surrounding the potential stripping of her Dutch citizenship led to her resignation from the parliament, and led indirectly to the fall of the second Balkenende cabinet in 2006.

As of 2011 Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and has been living in the United States. In 2005, she was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She has also received several awards including a free speech award from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the Swedish Liberal Party’s Democracy Prize, and the Moral Courage Award for commitment to conflict resolution, ethics, and world citizenship. In 2006 she published her memoir, which appeared in English translation in 2007 titled Infidel.

With thanks to Wikipedia for much of the above detail.

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