The Netherlands struggles with the assassination of Theo van Gogh

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.

For some Muslims, this was the last straw. Hirsi Ali received several death threats and was put under 24-hour police protection. But Van Gogh continued to move around Amsterdam by himself, usually by bicycle. On November 2, a young Dutch Muslim passed Van Gogh on a bike and shot him several times. According to one witness, the filmmaker shouted, “Don’t do it. Let’s talk!” But the young man took out a knife and tried to cut his throat. Then he left Van Gogh with the knife stuck in his stomach. Half an hour later, the murderer was captured by police, but not before he had shot and wounded a policeman, and received a police bullet in his leg.

Mohammed B.

Who was this assassin? Mohammed Bouyeri – usually referred to in the Dutch media as “Mohammed B.” – was 26 years old and even more of an outsider than his victim. His father had migrated from Morocco to improve himself, as had many other unskilled workers and farmers in the 1960s and 1970s. His mother died in 2001. Mohammed B. did well in school – better than most second-generation Moroccan Netherlanders. But after high school, things started going wrong.

He spent five years in college without obtaining a degree. Then, after volunteering in neighbourhood projects in Amsterdam, mainly with other immigrants, he failed to get financial support from the local government for projects he initiated. His appearance and behaviour began to change. He grew a beard, donned a djellaba, avoided alcohol and refused to shake hands with women. His contributions to the local paper became more critical of Dutch society. In an Amsterdam mosque, he apparently met members of a small group, close to Al Qaeda, whose goal was restoration of the Islamic caliphate. He joined an informal network which may have planned the murder of Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali and other Dutch politicians – or at least this is what the public prosecutor is trying to prove in the trial which began in January 2005.

Mohammed B. left a letter on his victim’s body, addressed to Hirsi Ali and announcing her death as well as the fall of the United States, Europe and the Netherlands, which in his opinion was controlled by Jews. When arrested, Mohammed B. had with him a second letter, likely meant as a final statement, since he did not intend to surrender to police. This testament was in Dutch, in the style of a St. Nicholas Day poem – an old Dutch tradition in which poems are written and hidden in gifts. Mohammed B.’s poem begins,

Dit is dan mijn laatste woord

Door kogels doorboord

In bloed gedoopt

Zoals ik had gehoopt

(This is my last word

riddled by bullets

dipped in blood

as I had hoped)

It ends (emphasis in original),

Tegen de hypocrieten

zeg ik tenslotte dit

wenst de DOOD of hou anders

je mond en zit

Beste broeders en zusters,

ik nader mijn einde

maar hiermee is niet

dit verhaal ten einde.

(To the hypocrites

I say this

wish for DEATH or

shut up, and

dear brothers and sisters,

my end is near

but not the end

of this story.)

This apocalyptic death cult is, of course, alien to the St. Nicholas poem – it is more reminiscent of Fascists and National Socialists – but the structure and rhythm are familiar. In many ways, Mohammed B. was a typical product of multicultural society. He wrote in Dutch, not Arabic (which he apparently did not know well), and he spoke Dutch with his comrades, some of whom were recently converted to Islam and not of North African or Arab descent.

A new cleavage?

4 figure 1The murder caused an enormous shock in the Netherlands. Journalists, actors and writers who had known Van Gogh published personal memories and expressed their warmest feelings – even if they had quarrelled with him during his life.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende called the filmmaker an “outstanding champion of free expression” and expressed concern about the changing political climate. In a reaction typical of the Christian Democrats (CDA), he called for solidarity and dialogue with Muslims, most of whom, he said, were peaceful and law-abiding. In the same vein, CDA Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner advised Muslims to sue – rather than kill – people like Van Gogh if their religious feelings were offended.

Their liberal coalition colleagues struck a different note. Blasphemy should be legalized rather than punished, suggested Democraten ’66 (D66). And Gerrit Zalm, who led VVD in the last election and is now Minister of Finance and Vice–Prime 
Minister, described the murder as “a declaration of war” and wanted to “declare war back on them.” To Jozias van Aartsen, former Minister of Internal Affairs and now VVD parliamentary leader, the murder was the beginning of a jihad in the Netherlands, more dangerous than anything since the Nazi occupation. Now was not the time for dialogue, he said, but for repressive action. Radical mosques should be closed and radical imams should be expelled.

Labour (PvdA), the main opposition party, agreed more with the liberals than with the Christian Democrats. PvdA leader Wouter Bos pointed out that Mohammed B. was well integrated into Dutch society, and stated that political Islam was an enemy that had to be defeated. Still, Bos agreed with the Prime Minister about the need for dialogue with the Muslim minority. The Greens (GL), the main champion of multiculturalism, went further than even the CDA, calling for dialogue with radical Muslim youth. GL leader Femke Halsema regarded the assassin as an extremist rather than as a Muslim, but even she agreed that radical imams should no longer be allowed into the country.

Several commentators suggested that Van Gogh’s murder spelled the end of Dutch multiculturalism. This seems premature, but the murder intensified a debate that had been raging for some years.

Before 2001, multiculturalism had no real opposition. In the eighties and early nineties, Hans Janmaat, the xenophobic leader of a fringe nationalist party, criticized the notion – and was boycotted by both politicians and journalists. Also in the nineties, then VVD leader Frits Bolkestein expressed doubts about the multicultural ideal and, especially, about the integration of the Netherlands’ growing Muslim minority. Bolkestein’s popularity grew, though he never insisted on a change in policy.

In 1998 both Janmaat and Bolkestein left Parliament, but they had opened the door for a politician who would articulate the issue more effectively. The door was opened wider still by the September 11, 2001, 
attack on New York, which might well have made a stronger impression in Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe – New York, after all, had once been New Amsterdam.

Two months later, Pim Fortuyn walked through that door. In the elections of May 2002, his poorly organized party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), came second to the Christian Democrats, winning more seats than either the VVD or the Labour party. Pim Fortuyn had mobilized Netherlanders’ latent fears of “backward Muslims.” But a few months after Fortuyn’s murder, the LPF began to disintegrate. It still holds eight seats in Parliament, but lacks leadership and coherence and did not benefit from the unrest caused by the assassination of Van Gogh.

Another politician has stepped into Fortuyn’s shoes. Geert Wilders had been a VVD member of Parliament since 1998, but in 2003 he criticized his party’s “soft” liberalism and called for tougher, neoconservative policies on immigration, law and order, and social security reform. His comments about subversive mosques led to death threats. Then, in September 2004, he broke with the VVD, mainly over its support for Turkey’s membership in the European Union, and announced his intention to form a new party.

Polls indicated the new party would attract 6 per cent of the vote, but after Van Gogh’s murder support for the not-yet-existing party jumped to 19 per cent – higher than the Christian Democrats. In early 2005, Wilders’s support declined, likely because threats on his life forced him to hide and avoid contact with the media.

Tough secularists and radical multiculturalists

Clearly, there is substantial potential support for a conservative, anti-immigration party in the Netherlands. And opinion leaders continue to fuel the debate about multiculturalism. One can distinguish four basic positions: nostalgic uniculturalism, tough secularism, soft multiculturalism and radical multiculturalism.

The nostalgic uniculturalists long to go back to the presumably homogeneous ethnic and religious communities of a distant past – whether the 1950s, the 1930s, the 19th century or the Middle Ages. They belong either to nationalist fringe groups or to the Calvinist SGP, which represents about 2 per cent of the population, mainly in rural areas. They play a very modest role in the debate.

The tough secularists are very different: modern, urban, progressive; individualistic and liberal in the classical European tradition. They regard religion as a private affair, irrelevant in public life. They say public servants should not wear religious symbols like headscarves, and religious schools should not receive government subsidies – a substantial bone of contention in the Netherlands, where two thirds of all schools are religious and the number of subsidized Islamic schools is growing. Freedom of expression should be absolute, they say, and religious sensibilities should not be spared in public debate. For tough secularists, Theo van Gogh is nearly a saint.

Most tough secularists vote for one of the liberal parties, VVD or D66, but many supported Pim Fortuyn and may switch to Wilders. They get a lot of media attention, and are well represented in newspaper columns, giving them opportunity to shape and “spin” public debate. And immigration policies are toughening: potential immigrants will have to prove competence in Dutch and knowledge about Dutch society before entering the country; a Netherlander who wants to marry a foreigner from outside the EU will have to earn above a certain income; and conditions for asylum seekers are becoming more stringent.

The moderate multiculturalists, who dominated Dutch politics and media until the end of the 1990s, are now on the defensive. Their position is yes, but. Yes, freedom of expression is very important, but you should not offend ethnic or religious minorities. Yes, state and religion are to be separated, but headscarves are harmless, even if worn by judges or public school students. Yes, Islamic fundamentalism may be a problem in one or two Islamic schools, but most Islamic schools accept our constitution and encourage the integration of their pupils in Dutch society. Yes, immigration should be controlled, but not at the expense of humanitarian values. This is the conciliatory attitude characteristic of Christian Democrats and social democrats.

A more radical multiculturalism was advocated by the Greens in the 1990s, calling for more immigrants and for education in immigrant languages. But shaken by threats from some uniculturalist extremists and by electoral setbacks in 2002 and 2003, the GL is quieter and more moderate today. Radical multiculturalism is now led by Muslim intellectuals and activists like Dyad Abu Jahjah, founder of the Arab European League in Belgium and the Netherlands, who claim the right to equality and respect for Islam. They argue in favour of Islamic schools, parties and other organizations, and even for the application of Islamic law. So far, they seem to represent only a minority of the one million Dutch Muslims, but this may change in reaction to growing pressure from secular individualists.

Will Amsterdam become Sarajevo?

As the debate polarizes, secularists and radical Muslims reinforce each other and crowd out moderates. This new cultural cleavage is potentially more explosive than the old socioeconomic cleavage between left and right. Similar trends can be observed in other European countries. The phenomenon may be long-lasting, or it may be a temporary consequence of rather rapid, unintended mass immigration from rural areas of North Africa and Turkey.

In a few decades, the Netherlands may be more like Canada, sharing basic values while cultivating diversity. Perhaps traditional left-right issues, like pension schemes and tax cuts, will prevail in politics again. The alternative is not very attractive: not long ago, Sarajevo was a multicultural city like Amsterdam. But Amsterdam has a long tradition of tolerance and pragmatism, based on solid commercial instincts. On balance, I remain optimistic.