EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has received death threats for her criticism of Islam, urged MEPs in Brussels on Thursday to set up an EU fund to pay for security for citizens facing such threats.
Appearing before a small audience of MEPs - several of whom are petitioning for the EU to foot the bill for Ms Hirsi Ali's security team - the Somali-born Muslim said: "The threats to my life have not subsided," but she had found herself in the "embarrassing situation" of having to fundraise for her own security.
Her case has come to the attention of the media again after she arrived in France this week, amid backing from prominent French intellectuals, and asked French president Nicolas Sarkozy for French citizenship, saying she could no longer afford her round-the-clock protection.
The French media have reported that the Elysee Palace has been considering establishing a European fund to help people like her.
Ms Hirsi Ali has been under high level security since 2004 when Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist extremist and a letter found on his dead body targeting her by name. She had written the script for Submission, a film directed by van Gogh and had been strongly critical of the treatment of women in Islamic society.
Ms Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands for the United States in May 2006 following a bitter row over the details of her age, name and asylum request for the Netherlands.
She now works for the Washington-based conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
In October 2007, the Dutch government stopped paying for her security detail, arguing she that is no longer based in the country. The US government says it does not pay for personal protection of citizens.
Ms Hirsi Ali, who says she now cannot afford to live in the US but also cannot live in the Netherlands because of the continuing death threats, says the issue "is much broader than whether or not I am killed."
"It is about freedom of speech."
She said she has come to believe, since coming to Europe in 1992 and learning about "European values" that it is "contemptible to look away from repression out of fear of reprisals."
But while underlining she "doesn't consider all Muslims terrorists", she also admits that she has asked herself "why large groups of Muslims are quiet" in such situations when thousands take to the street to protest "perceived" slights against Islam such when the Prophet Mohammed was depicted in a cartoon in a Danish newspaper.
She has some high-profile backers for her campaign to get a European protection fund set up.
French writer Bernard-Henri Levi referred to the Fatwa death sentence issued on British author Salman Rushdie, noting that the British government continues to pay for his protection although he resides in the US.
He said the "shame should be put on the people [in the Dutch government] who took this decision [to stop the funding]" and called on Europe "to prove itself."
The petition for a fund, initiated by French socialist MEP Benoit Hamon, has around 100 signatures.
€50 million pilot project
Mr Hamon said he would take the issue to the leaders of the political groups in the parliament to try and persuade them to approve the launching of a "pilot project" using the parliament's own budget. According to the MEP, some €50 million would then be available for the fund.
But the idea of a European fund to help those threatened by extremists remains very controversial. It is seen as both highly political and extremely sensitive, with only one in seven MEPs having signed the petition. Of those, only two are Dutch MEPs.
Already there are questions about whether such a fund is realistic and how to define who would be eligible for its monies. Would far-right extremists who are under life threat also be entitled to benefit from it, some MEPs have asked.
An EU diplomat said "I can't see any other member state rushing to say we should take this to EU level," referring to speculation that Paris may suggest something during its EU presidency in the second half of this year.
Meanwhile, the European Commission 's justice spokesman told EUobserver: "Individual protection of EU citizens rests solely the responsibility of member states themselves. It is neither the commission's nor the parliament's responsibility."
He said the commission would watch with "interest" any concrete proposals put forward, either by France or by MEPs, noting that the Brussels executive is keen to do its bit to defend citizens' right to the freedom of speech and press.