Sunday, November 07, 2004

Stranger in a Strange Land

The Dutch blog Zacht Ei is an interesting window into how people in the Netherlands are reacting to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Islamic fundamentalists. The UK Times described Gogh's death in the following way:

Theo van Gogh, the film maker who had often attacked radical Muslims, had been riding along on his bicycle when a Muslim fanatic first shot and then butchered him on a busy street with the nonchalance of an abattoir worker. ... Now other people were being targeted, too, as evidence emerged of a "brigade" of Dutch jihadists preparing to murder "the enemies of Islam" in a terror campaign that would be easier to carry out than the bombing of trains or heavily guarded government buildings.

He was not the only one to be threatened. "There will be no mercy" said a document that the killer had held over van Gogh's chest before skewering it there with a final knife blow to his heart. By then van Gogh, 47, had been shot several times and was seen by one witness on his knees, pleading with his assailant, "Don’t do it . . . we can still talk about it." The response was a knife to the throat. The killer sawed through the neck and spinal column, almost to the point of decapitating him.

The murder caused widespread popular anger, yet political correctness forced much of the public reaction into unconventional channels. The Mayor of Rotterdam Ivo Opstelten had a mural with the words "Thou Shalt Not Kill" removed in the aftermath of the Gogh murder because it might inflame Muslims. Gogh's film "Submission", which offended his murderers in the first place, was pulled from the Stedelijk Museum of modern art because it might cause an "uproar"; the same film was yanked off Rotterdam TV West for fear it would endanger their employees. Instead the Dutch PBS ran a special program to discuss:

'how a multicultural society should deal with freedom of expression'. This implicitly suggests that Mr. Van Gogh may just have stepped over some sort of invisible line, and therefore may be partly to blame for his own death. Of course, this suggestion was never spoken out aloud.

In this strange atmosphere, the debate took on a surrealistic aspect. Dutch entrepreneur Ron Eilers hired a light plane to pull a streamer around Amsterdam with the words "Theo was right --  no theocracy". Other politicians, renegade Muslims and Jews, came forward to show death letters written to them, making their point by indirection. Opinion polls showed an shift in public attitudes towards unassimilated Muslims. The UK Times described telling scenes.

Tensions rose. Shouting matches erupted between Moroccans and Dutch people at the scene of van Gogh’s killing where well-wishers left a carpet of flowers and handwritten notes, some of them angrily calling for more control on radical Muslims. At one point a car filled with dark-skinned young men pulled up alongside the shrine. The windows came down to the sound of blaring Arab music and whoops of delight from the passengers. Dutch men paying their respects to van Gogh, a grandson of the famous artist’s brother, yelled at them to move on. Things were equally tense at the home of the killer’s parents in a sprawling complex of red-brick council housing. Young Moroccans shouted abuse on Thursday afternoon when a Dutch colleague and I tried to ask about the killer. We were obliged to withdraw when a bucket of water was thrown from the first floor.

Still the Dutch authorities twisted and squirmed; trying to say the necessary without uttering the impermissible. Yet reading Zacht Ei conveys a sense that a public dialogue was taking place anyway, despite everything; in attenuated sentences and sign language, like powerful currents surging under a falsely placid surface. Although the Gogh murder is unlikely to create any drastic changes in Dutch policy by itself, it may provide a nucleus around which ideas, long thought to be dissolved in the multicultural solution of the Netherlands, begin to precipitate. One of these is the Islamic message; and the other the memory of the Dutch nation.