Islamist Extremists Try to Silence Dutch Author With Death Threats
At 23, her first book now tops her country’s bestseller list — an autobiographical novel praised by critics nationwide. She has been featured in interviews on TV, in newspaper articles, and in women’s magazines. But now members of her own community are threatening to kill her — and her mother thinks they’re right.
This isn’t happening in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq. It is happening in Amsterdam, the Netherlands — that alleged bastion of tolerance and freedom.
Lale Gül, the daughter of Turkish immigrants to the Netherlands, penned “Ik Ga Leven” (I Shall Live! ) to show “a look into my culture” through the eyes of a young woman who, like Gül herself, lives a kind of double-life: a young, freewheeling, and independent Western girl in the outer world, while a dutiful, pious Muslim daughter at home. Through the character of “Büsra,” Gül decries the oppressiveness of the community and culture in which she has been raised, a family in which she was forbidden to wear jewelry or makeup, to join school field trips without a male family member, to be friends with a boy, especially one who was not Turkish.
Like “Büsra,” Gül’s own parents are deeply religious, especially her mother, who, she says, fully supported October’s beheading by a Muslim terrorist of French history teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb. Paty’s mortal sin: he had shown his students a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed. It is a perspective Gül finds deeply troubling.
Indeed, according to the Dutch newspaper the “Volkskrant,” Gül began wrestling with Islam early, struggling to reconcile the lessons she learned in Koran school with what she studied in her elementary and high school classes: When she asked [in Koran school] why girls had to cover their heads and not boys, the teacher claimed the question “had been whispered to her by the devil.”
This is the perspective she brought to her book. Naively, she admits now, she thought her parents would never really know what she’d written. Her mother is illiterate. Neither parent speaks or reads much Dutch.
What she didn’t count on was the effect of the publicity, and the rapid spread of tales throughout a small community like her own. A young, successful novelist — a Muslim woman, at that, and beautiful, with a controversial tale to tell — she was a perfect subject for the media.
But after one particular TV appearance, as one critic wrote, it was “as if a bomb exploded in her parents’ community.” The main problem was her battle with orthodox Islam, with the questioning of a culture in which, as “Büsra” puts it, girls are forced to live “like houseplants” and become “breeding hens” once they are forced into a marriage. “Is this what I live for?” “Büsra” muses. “Is God then happy with my tragedy?”
Phones rang in the Gül household the day after her appearance on a talk show in early February. Lale’s parents listened, horrified, to friends and relatives explaining to them what their daughter actually had written, how she had exposed their private life to the outer world, and how she had spoken against their faith. Some of what her parents heard was untrue. An uncle threatened “to punch my teeth out of my mouth,” she told the “Volkskrant.” And her mother, Lale says, defended him. “I can’t say he’s wrong,” she says her mother told her. “You asked for it with that book.”
That wasn’t the only time her mother expressed violent wishes against her own daughter. “I understand that people want to strangle you,” Lale’s mother told her, according to an interview in the Amsterdam daily “Het Parool.“ “If you weren’t my child, I probably would have strangled you, too.”
The young author also faces a barrage of threats from strangers, both online and on the street. She rarely leaves home now, fearing for her safety. She declined to be interviewed for this article, fearing further threats. She has been vilified in Turkey thanks in part to a tweet from former Geert Wilders ally Arnoud van Doorn, now an orthodox Muslim and leader of his own antisemitic political party, alleging that she had left Islam, and was proud of it.
Some of this furor has been nearly humorous: in response to Van Doorn, Gül asked him to remove his tweet, calling him a “dirty dog.” Van Doorn then filed a police complaint against her, saying the words “dirty dog” had “offended” him.
But little else is funny. Gül believes it will no longer be possible for her to visit Turkey as a result of Van Doorn’s actions. She relies on her brother to protect her. She has been advised to take on a bodyguard, though to date she has rejected the idea. Fans compare her to activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch parliamentarian and ex-Muslim who has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of Muslim women and for ex-Muslims worldwide. She waves off the comparison, calling Hirsi Ali her “hero.”
Now, while Gül holds to her principles, proud that she has provided a glimpse into the world she and so many other young Muslim women are forced to live in, it is clear that the pressure has taken a toll. She had considered leaving home, but decided against it. “I would no longer have a family,” she told “Het Parool.” “So I am trying just to make clear by staying that no, I won’t leave you, because I love you, and I hope one day you also will love me.”
She has also made concessions, as have her mother and father. She agrees now to marry a Turkish man, though, she says, he will have to be as progressive-thinking as she is. And although she had planned a sequel to her novel, she will write no more books, at least none like this one.
Still, while there may be no more future for “Büsra,” it is hard to imagine the same will be true for Lale. Her own passion for justice, it appears, will not so easily be silenced.
Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. She is the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West( Praeger, 2010). Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @radicalstates.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.