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Newsmaker: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

  • Story Highlights
  • Somali-born activist's life in peril again
  • Has led a nomadic lifestyle since childhood
  • Supporters claim she is a refugee from Western Europe
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By Matthew Knight for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It was reported this week that the Dutch government are to withdraw their round-the-clock protection for Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- the former Dutch MP and outspoken critic of Islam -- if she remains in the United States. It is the latest in a long line of controversies that have punctuated the life of the Somali-born activist.

Outspoken critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969 Hirsi Ali's nomadic existence began early in life.

When she was six years old, her father Hirsi Magan Isse -- a prominent figure in the Somali Salvation Democratic Front -- was imprisoned by Somali dictator Siad Barre. She and her family were forced into exile -- first in Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia and then for 10 years in Kenya.

At the behest of her father, Hirsi-Ali married a Somali-Canadian cousin in 1992. She had never met her husband before. After a ceremony in Kenya, the couple set off to start a new life in Canada. But during a stopover in Dusseldorf, Germany, Hirsi Ali -- unable to come to terms with the arranged marriage -- made a run for it, taking a train across the border to the Netherlands.

On arrival she applied for and was granted political asylum -- albeit on the basis of false personal information and imprecise details about how she had arrived in the Netherlands.

Initially she worked as a cleaning lady and later -- thanks to a proficiency in languages picked up during her youth -- found employment as a translator for immigration and social services. It was during this time that Hirsi Ali was exposed to a hidden world of domestic violence and suffering of Muslim women in the Netherlands.

In 1995 she enrolled at the University of Leiden where she studied political science and philosophy. After graduating she became a researcher with a Dutch Labour party think-tank, tasked with looking at immigration. She was officially granted Dutch citizenship in 1997.

By now her religious beliefs -- which had been steadfast in her early youth -- were precariously loose and her vocal condemnation of the treatment of Muslim women meant she became the target of abuse and death threats from religious fanatics.

In her autobiography "Infidel" published earlier this year, she describes the moment when she finally turned her back on Islam for good.

"The little shutter at the back of my mind, where I pushed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open after the 9/11 attacks, and it refused to close again. I found myself thinking that the Koran is not a holy document. It is a historical record, written by humans. It is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet died. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war."

The death threats continued and Hirsi Ali was forced to flee to the United States in 2002 only to be encouraged back to her adopted homeland by Gerrit Zalm -- the then deputy prime minister of the Netherlands. He urged her to run for the Dutch Parliament.

She entered the Lower House of the States-General in 2003 as a member of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

In 2004, Hirsi Ali gained worldwide notoriety as the writer of the controversial screenplay "Submission." Released in August the 10-minute film portrayed violence towards Muslim women.

By November the film's director Theo Van Gogh -- who had steadfastly refused police protection -- was dead, killed by an Islamist fanatic Mohammed Bouyeri in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street.

Attached to the dagger staked to Van Gogh's chest was a letter addressed to Hirsi Ali which repeated claims that she was an infidel. Security was immediately stepped up around her and she was forced into hiding.

She continued her work as a politician until May 2006 when she was forced to resign after Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk stripped her of her passport -- which was soon reinstated -- due to her falsifying her 1992 asylum application.

On hearing of the ruling, Hirsi Ali resigned as an MP and announced that she would be taking up a position in the U.S. working for the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

The news that the Dutch government are to stop paying for her protection whilst she is abroad has enraged her supporters. In an article for the International Herald Tribune earlier this week, Salman Rushdie and Sam Harris wrote: "There is not a person alive more deserving of the freedoms of speech and conscience we take for granted in the West." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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