Among his many talents, Afshin Ellian has a knack for making people want to kill him.
It’s a trait he demonstrated as a fugitive in his native Iran after the Islamic Revolution; then as a refugee in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he angered secular Stalinists; and finally in Holland, where he lives under 24-hour police protection because of his criticisms of Islam.
Ellian has never been someone to toe the line, however. As many in Europe were rushing to condemn Israel’s operation in Gaza last month, Ellian, probably the most famous Iranian in the Netherlands, used his platform at the Dutch magazine Elsevier to blame Hamas “for putting their people in an inhumane position by needlessly waging war.” He has criticized the Western media for ignoring massacres in Arab countries and focusing instead on Israel. And he has drawn death threats from Muslim militants for zingers like this: “Radical Islamists are so determined to prove Islam is the religion of peace that they are willing to kill for it.”
Having found himself in the line of fire so many times, it’s unsurprising that the 46-year-old philosopher, poet and law professor dismissed suggestions that he might be deterred by Hamas rockets from carrying through with his first trip to Israel, a country he first heard of as a young political activist in Iran.
“Israel is what I wished Iran would be after the fall of the shah’s regime,” Ellian said in an interview recently at his office at Leiden University. “Its democratic nature is seen as a weakness by the Islamists in power but is a powerful model for young Iranians seeking change. Israel is also a central element — a made-up enemy — in the identity of the Iranian Islamic Republic, which oppresses them and has made me stateless. In short, Israel is relevant to my life.”
A refugee from the Iranian revolution, Ellian has a high profile in the Netherlands. The author of several books, some of them on radical Islam, he is also a columnist for Elsevier and appears regularly on Dutch television as a Middle East commentator. His Op-Eds also have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Der Spiegel.
For a small country, the Netherlands has produced more than its fair share of political provocateurs who live under constant threat of death for their views. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former parliamentarian, lived for years under armed guard following the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, with whom she collaborated on a piece critical of Islam, before leaving for the United States. The anti-
immigrant politician Geert Wilders also lives under police protection.
Like Hirsi Ali and Wilders, Ellian came to embrace the Jewish state, both as the adversary of a shared enemy and a model of what a religiously inspired democracy in the Middle East could look like. He first heard of Israel as a teenager in Iran, fleeing the Islamists who would pick out political
activists like himself in universities and on the street. His cousin, also an activist, was executed and dumped in a mass grave.
“I was in a bakery and Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s spiritual leader, promised that the war with Iraq will lead to Jerusalem,” he said. “The baker and I had no idea where that was. I figured it had to be a village in Iraq.”
In Israel, Ellian delivered a lecture at the University of Haifa organized in part by Irgoen Olei Holland, an association of Dutch immigrants. The event is held each year on Nov. 26, the anniversary of a defiant 1940 speech by Rudolf Cleveringa, a non-Jewish Leiden professor, opposing the expulsion of Jews from academic and public life in Nazi-occupied Holland.
After his flight to Israel was diverted so the KLM crew could disembark — the airline had barred its employees from the country during last month’s fighting — Ellian wrote that the crew could “learn something about courage from Cleveringa.”
They also could learn something about courage from Ellian himself. The son of two left-leaning intellectuals, Ellian went into hiding soon after Islamists swept to power in Iran in 1979. At 17, he already was
hiding with the liberal underground’s shrinking network of safe houses.
“I shacked up in a Christian cemetery one night,” he recalls. “The sexton told me I might as well find a grave.”
In 1982, Ellian fled Iran on camelback, traveling 1,100 miles through the mountains to Pakistan.
But that country proved no safer. Local police routinely arrested Iranians, and Ellian caught malaria and constantly switched addresses as he planned his next escape.
In Afghanistan, he stayed for three years and began his studies. But there, too, he ran afoul of ideological foes: Stalinists who had been in exile since before the fall of the shah.
“We newcomers led a small revolt against the Stalinists, not realizing we were playing with our lives,” Ellian said. “We came close to a kangaroo court or a lynch mob.”
In 1987 he fled again, this time with his wife to Holland, where he set his mind to his studies, earning three master’s degrees at the University of Tilburg within six years of his arrival — a first in the university’s history.
“I thought I could finally say anything,” he says of his current home. But danger was still lurking.
In 2000, he received the first of what would become many death threats after he criticized the Prophet Muhammad’s orders to kill critical poets in Medina, among other aspects of Islam. But Ellian would not be silenced. He accused the Iranian regime of “barbarity” and the “silent majority” of Muslims of complicity in the acts of violent radicals. The threats continued.
Many in Holland hailed him as a hero for disregarding his own safety in stating his beliefs — but not everyone viewed him as a paragon of courage. The influential Dutch-born writer Ian Buruma has dismissed Ellian as a “traumatized” man who “embraced a radical version of the European Enlightenment.” And earlier this month, the newspaper Volkskrant published an Op-Ed accusing Ellian of making generalizations about Muslims.
“I have nothing against Islam,” Ellian told JTA. “But I should be able to criticize it in the same way that I am able to criticize Judaism and Christianity.”
Ellian was placed under 24-hour police protection shortly after receiving his first death threats.
Four years later, after the van Gogh murder, security was beefed up considerably at his Leiden office, where he sits behind electronically locked doors.
“I was shocked,” Ellian said. “I fled the Middle East, but the Middle East followed me. I knew that this time I had nowhere else to flee except maybe the moon.”