by Paul Lucardie
Amsterdam, October 2, 2004. About 200,000 Netherlanders demonstrate against the centre-right government’s cutbacks and, especially, its plans to reduce facilities for early retirement. Organized by the trade unions, this is the largest demonstration of trade unionists in Dutch history – a classic case of left vs. right.
Amsterdam, November 2, 2004. About 20,000 Netherlanders join together to mourn filmmaker and writer Theo van Gogh, assassinated that morning by a radical Muslim – an impressive turnout for a demonstration not sponsored by any mass organization. The murder fosters a new cleavage in Dutch society: opponents vs. supporters of multiculturalism. It is not just a verbal struggle. A week after the murder, some seven mosques, two Islamic schools and five Christian churches are set on fire.
Theo van Gogh: a provocative secularist
Theo van Gogh – yes, a great-great-nephew of the famous painter – was born in 1957 into a progressive, middle-class family. For most of his life he was an outsider. After a failed attempt to study law, he applied to film school but was rejected. Van Gogh learned his trade by writing, directing and producing his own low-budget films. His first movie included cats killed in a washing machine and a woman shot through her vagina. Some of his later work was more subtle and successful. He twice won the Golden Calf, the Dutch film industry’s most important award.
He also began writing columns in magazines and newspapers, most recently in Metro, a daily newspaper distributed without charge in railway stations and other public places. Here he was free to provoke and offend, although occasionally he went too far even for the liberal judges of the Netherlands, as when he joked about “the smell of caramel, caused by burning diabetic Jews.” He was not convicted, however, when he wrote about a Jewish historian having wet dreams about Auschwitz surgeon Dr. Mengele; or the leader of GL, the Green party (see box), who would “hopefully” die of brain cancer in the near future.
In the nineties, Van Gogh found a new target for his columns: Muslims, whom he often called “goat-fuckers.” As a radical secularist, he was worried that they would reduce freedom of expression and tolerance in Dutch society. His concern was shared by maverick Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, killed in 2002 by an animal rights activist1, and by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, elected to Parliament for the right-wing VVD in 2003.
Hirsi Ali, a Somalian refugee, had aroused the anger of many Muslims by renouncing Islam and describing their prophet as a tyrant and a pervert. Her main goal was the emancipation of Muslim women, and she asked Van Gogh to help make a movie dramatizing their suffering. Submission, Part I included an actress in a see-through veil telling stories about incest, violence and rape, and images of a woman with words from the Qur’an carved into her naked back. Submission was broadcast on Dutch television in August 2004.