The silencing of Theo van Gogh

The Dutch filmmaker believed that insulting people was his right as a free citizen. The Muslim fanatic who slaughtered him didn't agree.

Published November 24, 2004 10:28PM (EST)

On the morning of Nov. 2 in a busy street in east Amsterdam, a 26-year-old Dutch Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri pulled out a gun and shot controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was riding a bike to his office. Van Gogh hit the ground and stumbled across the street to a nearby building. He didn't make it. As the Moroccan strode toward him, van Gogh shouted, "We can still talk about it! Don't do it! Don't do it." But the Moroccan didn't stop. He shot him again, slit van Gogh's throat and stuck a letter to his chest with a knife. He was slaughtered like an animal, witnesses said. "Cut like a tire," said one. Van Gogh, the Dutch master's great-grand-nephew, was 47 years old.

After shooting van Gogh, Bouyeri fled to a nearby park, where he was arrested after a gunfight with the police. One police officer was wounded and Bouyeri himself was shot in the leg and taken to a police hospital.

The letter pinned to van Gogh's chest contained accusations aimed not at him but at Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee and liberal parliamentarian, who for years has been fighting for women's rights in the Netherlands' widespread Islamic community. Earlier this year, Hirsi Ali and van Gogh had made "Submission," a short fiction film that was shown on Dutch public television. In the film, a Muslim woman is forced into an arranged marriage, abused by her husband, raped by her uncle and then brutally punished for adultery. Her body, visible through transparent garments, shows painted verses from the Koran. The film, van Gogh said in a TV interview, was "intended to provoke discussion on the position of enslaved Muslim women. It's directed at the fanatics, the fundamentalists.

Written in Dutch, the bloody letter called Hirsi Ali an "infidel fundamentalist" who "terrorizes Islam" and "marches with the soldiers of evil." With her "hostilities," she "unleashed a boomerang and it's just a matter of time before this boomerang will seal your destiny." In capital letters it said: "AYAAN HIRSI ALI, YOU WILL SMASH YOURSELF ON ISLAM!" The letter ended with a kind of chant: "I know for sure that you, O America, are going to meet with disaster. I know for sure that you, O Europe, are going to meet with disaster. I know for sure that you, O Holland, are going to meet with disaster."

Hirsi Ali fled into hiding the day of van Gogh's murder and the next day published a reaction in the Rotterdam daily, NRC Handelsblad. "I am sad because Holland has lost its innocence," she wrote. "Theo's naiveté wasn't that it [murder] couldn't happen here, but that it couldn't happen to him. He said: 'I am the village idiot, they won't hurt me.'"

But they did. As part of his fearless bravado, van Gogh underestimated the wrath of his enemies -- and perhaps the cultural storm at the core of Dutch society. The rage directed at van Gogh stems from the uneasy coexistence between the liberal Netherlands and Islamic fundamentalism. For decades, the country has had an open-door policy; it is now home to more than 1 million immigrants, mainly from Islamic countries. In the process of ensuring that Muslim immigrants are treated as equal citizens, the Dutch government has allowed mosques to flourish, some of which preach a radical brand of Islam that runs counter to the Netherlands' liberal values. It's this climate of "politically correct" tolerance that incited van Gogh and spurred him to strike back in his writings and films.

In fact, the big-bellied, chain-smoking director had just completed another bomb-throwing film, "06-05." It concerns the murder of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, a writer, professor and outspoken opinion leader who opposed the Dutch government's investment in a new fighter jet, the Joint Strike Fighter. Like van Gogh, who called Fortuyn "the divine bald one," Fortuyn detested the politically correct atmosphere that he said pervaded the country. In the spring of 2002, the flamboyant gay libertarian won Rotterdam local elections by an overwhelming majority, and it looked like he'd do the same in national parliament a few months later. But just before election day, Fortuyn was murdered.

On his Web site, the Healthy Smoker, van Gogh had predicted the assassination: "I suspect Fortuyn will be the first in a line of politically incorrect heretics to be eliminated," he wrote. "This is what our multicultural society has brought us: a climate of intimidation in which all sorts of goatfuckers can issue their threats freely." Fortuyn, however, was not shot by a Muslim extremist but by an animal-rights activist for "using Muslims as scapegoats," as the murderer, a quiet, earnest-looking man, later explained in court.

Notably, van Gogh was murdered exactly 911 days after Fortuyn. Anger toward him had certainly been rising to a boiling point all year. In May, he was slated to act as chairman of a public debate called "Happy Chaos" at the Amsterdam City Theatre. Dyab Abou Jahjah, the leader of a relatively small but provocative Belgian Islamic organization, refused to sit at the table with van Gogh. One of the organizers claimed Jahjah said, "We're not taking any more of that pig." When Jahjah left the stage, van Gogh took the microphone and said: "So this is what some Muslims think of democracy!" After Jahjah left, he said to the crowd: "Why would he be afraid to talk to me? After all, he's the prophet's pimp and he has bodyguards." The debate was canceled.

Needless to say, this didn't enhance van Gogh's standing with Dutch Muslims. Nor is the filmmaker's posthumous reputation likely to improve with the Dutch government and military when "06-05" is released next month. As van Gogh said when he was making the film, "I'll do my best to seriously insult quite a few people."

As a writer, van Gogh lived to insult people. There was "something pathological" about it, said Dutch author Leon de Winter. But it wasn't all pathology. Van Gogh also had a warm and compassionate side. I recently talked to him on the phone when he was on the set of one of his new projects. In his high-pitched and hurried speech, he was friendly enough to answer my questions despite being busy, yet he also managed to throw in a couple of obligatory insults about one of his colleagues. "His sole function as a member of these financing committees is to block my movies," he said. "All that mediocrity that sits on these boards."

Van Gogh made his first movie, "Lüger," in 1980, at the age of 23. In the previous year, the law school dropout tried to get in to the Amsterdam Film Academy but was turned down. He claims the approval committee told him to see a psychiatrist. No problem, he thought, I'll teach myself how to direct and raise money for films.

He collected $30,000 from friends and family and started filming. "Lüger," a thriller about a mentally disabled millionaire's daughter who's kidnapped by a greasy psychopath, was screened at the Dutch Film Festival in 1981 and caused an instant riot. The cause of all this commotion was two scenes, one in which the protagonist shoves a pistol into a woman's vagina and a second that shows two kittens spinning in a washing machine. The latter scene was faked, but editing techniques didn't stop van Gogh's opponents from criticizing him. Some of his colleagues called the film "adolescent shit" and one person spit in van Gogh's face at the festival. "Every penny spent on this film is a penny for the devil," wrote the country's largest newspaper. All the same, the festival jury gave the film a special mention.

Van Gogh had only just started. His next few films were book adaptations that were well received by critics but were hardly noticed by moviegoers. The exception was "06," about a sensual anonymous phone sex relationship spinning totally out of control after one lover discovers the identity of his partner, that was also shown in New York as "1-900." It attracted the largest audience for a Dutch film in 1994.

Van Gogh increasingly took control over his own films and refused to work with traditional Dutch film funds. He loathed the bureaucratic obstacles that slowed him down. The downside was that he had to somehow collect his own money, just as he did with "Lüger." To make "06," he took a second mortgage on his house.

But raising money wasn't always easy, a fact van Gogh owed to his habit of insulting people. In 1989, Dutch broadcasting network Veronica canceled the contract for the production of the satirical "Loos," about a washed-up lawyer who is forced to defend a shady nightclub owner after the latter has kidnapped the lawyer's sadomasochistic lover. Van Gogh offended one of the network's chiefs by calling him "a coke head who specialized in throwing secretaries over the balcony."

On the other hand, most actors loved van Gogh. His friend, author Thomas Ross, said that as a director, van Gogh couldn't care less about plot, he was only interested in acting and dialogue. Actors who were mediocre at best in other films peaked when directed by him. Although if actors didn't manage total devotion to a project, they earned van Gogh's wrath. "He was usually too drunk to learn his lines," van Gogh wrote when one of his former actors died. He also couldn't stand people exploiting their sorrow. About an actress van Gogh felt was exploiting the death of her son, he sarcastically remarked, "Now mummy can go on tour for years with his remembrance."

Some of van Gogh's colleagues insisted that the filmmaker's insults were a pose and that it was a "test of intelligence to be able to see through them," as the critic Hans Beerekamp put it. But it wasn't always that straightforward. Many people were offended when van Gogh made Holocaust-tinged jokes about Jewish writers and filmmakers: "Hey, it smells like caramel today -- well then, they must be burning the diabetic Jews," Leon de Winter, in the Wall Street Journal, recently quoted van Gogh as saying. Van Gogh's friend, writer Theodor Holman, had once called "every Christian a criminal" and van Gogh couldn't resist rushing to his friend's defense after Christians raised a public outcry. Van Gogh declared that Holman's enemies were only "the fan club of that rotting fish in Nazareth."

"Theo didn't understand much about people; he couldn't see things from their perspective," Holman said recently. "That made him blunt but curious at the same time."

But that doesn't explain it all. He also passionately believed in free speech and he took on everything and everyone that posed a threat to it. Two years ago, he told the Dutch newspaper Trouw: "I believe Islam threatens our freedoms. Let me state this clearly: I don't mean every Muslim is dangerous and it would be stupid to think so. But it would be even more stupid to deny that our freedoms must be protected."

Van Gogh didn't feel threatened personally, he said repeatedly. But he did feel the freedom to speak out was being curtailed. Earlier this year, a play in Amsterdam about the prophet Mohammed was considered "blasphemous" by a local Muslim politician. Van Gogh sardonically placed an ad in a local Amsterdam newspaper, saying, "Why shouldn't a play get prohibited? Vote for her!" This declining tolerance for criticism was what van Gogh perceived as a growing climate of intimidation. He toyed with people but was serious at the same time.

Van Gogh's former friend, actor Thom Hoffman, thinks differently: "His quarrels were meaningless. He just took the most radical stance. In the 1980s, he promoted cruise missiles when the whole country literally opposed them. In the 1990s, he took on men with beards," when the politically correct majority still denied any signs of religious or ethnic conflict in the peaceful kingdom of the Netherlands. Van Gogh ended his friendship with Hoffman in the 1980s after the latter appeared in movies that van Gogh hated. "He called me an S.S. officer with Vaseline up my ass," Hoffman said. "He sort of got stuck on Second World War idioms."

Offensive as he could be in person and as a writer -- numerous magazines and newspapers fired him after insults or fights over the contents of his writing -- as a filmmaker, van Gogh was a close reader of human behavior. His films show protagonists who passionately try to connect to each other but end up meeting somewhere in the middle. Van Gogh presented a sinister, failing romanticism, his characters always blinded by their own agendas.

Van Gogh made a total of 25 films and TV programs, and film critic Dana Linssen believed they were only getting better. In van Gogh's 1998 film, "De Pijnbank," Linssen wrote, van Gogh "showed me he was focusing more and more on the power struggle between people. Between men and women and on a more fundamental level between predator and prey, especially when these roles shift between people. He showed us victims can be as opportunist as the ones in power. Heroes become villains and the other way around." In van Gogh's last production, "06-05," Linssen saw his "different personae: the political commentator, the artiste provocateur on a mission and the humanist with a frank and unsettling view on human nature, all come together."

Ten hours after the news of van Gogh's murder, 20,000 people came together on Amsterdam's main square. They stood in shock, hoping this was not the beginning of chaos and the end of free speech. But incidents in the following weeks seemed to prove the opposite.

The Dutch finance minister, Gerrit Zalm, spoke of a "war on extremist Islam," although he renounced that a few days later after the prime minister responded that stirring up public opinion might not be the wisest thing to do right now. Zalm subsequently said he meant "the fight against extremism" and not "war." An Islamic school in the south of the country was damaged by a bomb attack, but no one was hurt. After that, two churches in another town were hit by fire bombs.

A message from the Islamic group Tawhid Brigades was then posted on a fundamentalist Web site, stating that the Dutch government and the general public would become targets of terrorist attacks if the assaults on Islamic institutions didn't stop. The group is little known and security services are having a hard time judging the actual threat. At the same time, though, the Moroccan consulate in Rotterdam was covered in feces. A few hours earlier, a party for the premiere of "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" was evacuated because the manager noticed some suspicious uninvited guests at the party.

Today, a somewhat uneasy calm has settled over the country. The day after van Gogh's brutal murder, the secret service arrested eight people, all suspected of being part of a radical Islamic network. Police and intelligence services have increased their efforts to find terrorist cells and uncover international networks financing terrorist activities. Moroccan groups organize gatherings and even bike rides to show that they are of good will and that the murder suspect was a loner or at best belonged to a small group of religious zealots.

Police have revealed that Bouyeri, van Gogh's killer, the son of Moroccan immigrants, was raised and educated in Amsterdam. A quiet man living in a poor residential area on the outskirts of town -- even his Moroccan neighbors didn't know him -- he did volunteer work for a local community service. He turned to the radical right in front of his friends and teachers, and in 2001 started going to a mosque run by a controversial Egyptian, who had praised suicide attackers as martyrs. The Wall Street Journal reported that Dick Glastra van Loon, the community center coordinator, recalled that Bouyeri, "who had never seemed particularly religious, banned alcohol and then tried to bar mixed-sex meetings" at the center. There has been speculation about the seed of Bouyeri's radical fundamentalism, including suggestions that the death of his mother triggered him to develop a fixation on a society based solely on Islamic Law.

In her letter to a Rotterdam newspaper after van Gogh's murder, politician and "Submission" screenwriter Hirsi Ali, who is rumored to be soon returning to public life, wrote: "Theo and I amply discussed the possible consequences of Submission. He said: 'The moment these considerations stop you from speaking out, that's the moment freedom of speech stops and that is exactly what the fundamentalists want us to do.'"

In a society that tries to offer equality and fundamental rights to all its citizens, van Gogh always called himself "a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech." On a public radio show in May, he said: "People always tells me I cross the line. But free debate is a war of ideas. It's a place where we should be able to hurt each other."

By Ronald Rovers

Ronald Rovers is a journalist and film critic. He lives in Amsterdam.

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