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  European Viewpoint



Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch legislator from Somalia, is now living in the United States, where she is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She was under state protection in the Netherlands because she authored the screenplay for "Submission," the film for which director Theo van Gogh was killed by a radical Islamist. Leon de Winter, a Dutch novelist, is the author of such books as "God's Gym" and "Hoffman's Honger."

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Leon de Winter

WASHINGTON/AMSTERDAM — Note the following date in your diary. It’s a historic date: Sept. 12, 2006. What? You don’t know what happened that day?

On that day BMW, the German luxury car producer that makes the “ultimate driving machine,” revealed that in the spring of 2007 it will be delivering the new 7 series with a hydrogen engine. You know what the exhaust pipe will emit when this car is running in hydrogen mode? Steam, pure H2O.

The car will comply with the highest possible environmental norms: zero emission. Drivers with cars running on hydrogen cause no pollution to the environment at all. No need to think twice about buying a car that’s too big and heavy. A Hummer running on hydrogen would pollute the environment as little as a Honda Civic running on hydrogen. And hydrogen engines are no less fast and powerful than traditional combustion engines: In a test, the hydrogen-powered BMW reached a speed of more than 160 miles per hour.

There are still many obstacles to overcome before the world can switch to hydrogen. Today’s world runs on oil. Almost every car engine requires petrol. Boilers or furnaces in many domestic houses run on heating oil. The fuel used by ships, airplanes, trucks — they all run on oil or on oil derivates.

And there are other problems, too. The question of responsibly generating electricity to produce hydrogen still has to be answered. It could take decades before we arrive at a point where the world can run on hydrogen. Still, BMW is the first car producer to announce that it will be making hydrogen cars for ordinary customers, and that is truly a revolutionary development, a milestone comparable to the introduction of the first transistor in 1948, which played an indispensable role in making the current electronic revolution possible.

It is not fully clear whether the human factor has indeed had a decisive impact on today’s climate change, but even if there is no definitive proof, it makes sense to reduce the risk. We need to switch to energy that isn’t created by burning fossil fuels. In many parts of the world, it’s possible to use solar energy more effectively; this solar energy can be used to produce hydrogen. Windmills and even the tidal currents of the sea can create electricity.

But hydrogen is welcome not just for environmental reasons. Producing hydrogen and cars that run on hydrogen will completely redraw the geopolitical map.

The largest oil reserves are located under countries that suffer from chronic instability. The Persian Gulf perches on top of the world’s petrol tank. This region is home to cultures that bear an enduring hatred for each other. The leaders of Iran’s Shiite revolution have set their sights on the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi provinces where the fields are located are populated by Shiites who may be Saudis in name but are discriminated against in their country. Iran’s principal goal in developing a nuclear bomb is to dominate the Gulf region.

Indeed, the Iranian mullahs learned their lesson from Saddam Hussein, who botched the occupation of Kuwait in 1990. If Saddam had waited one more year, there is a good chance he would have had a nuclear bomb — and then no one would have risked fighting Iraq’s invasion of its southern neighbor.

The two radical Muslim movements of today’s world: the Shiites of Iran’s mullahs and the strict Wahhabis of al-Qaida are financed with oil revenues. Both movements aim to unite all Muslims and to transform the world into an Islamic utopia. An Islamic utopia has no room for Western lifestyles, no room for equality of men and women or of religions, no room for modern art or pop music, no room for a free press or freedom of expression.

The struggle against these radical movements is a painstaking process.

But as long as the world needs oil, the West cannot afford to ignore the chaos in the Middle East. By now, it’s clear that the introduction of democratic models by the West cannot resolve the tribal, religious and cultural conflicts of the Middle East. Evidently, there are other loyalties that carry more weight among the people who live in the region than the norms and values of a free civil society.

BMW has charted a new path for the free world to avoid the blackmail of the oil producers and the threats of radical Islamic movements: hydrogen. It’s far more cost-effective to invest $100 billion in accelerating the development and introduction of hydrogen technology than to continue to hope for the collapse of the regime of Iran’s mullahs, who form the heart of the problem in the Middle East. The only thing that keeps the Iranian mullahs going is the petrol pump, and it’s easy to see what will happen once we stop buying their product.