The assassination of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker whose funeral took place yesterday, is something new in Europe. There are, of course, antecedents. Fifteen years have passed since Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie: the first shot in the culture war between fundamentalist Islam and the West. But there is no precedent for the ritual slaughter of a prominent artist in broad daylight on the streets of Amsterdam.
For the Dutch, this murder is not only sinister: it is symbolic. Van Gogh – distantly related to Holland’s most celebrated artist – was shot on his bicycle, another national emblem. As he writhed on the ground, the murderer cut his throat without mercy and left him with two knives protruding from his body: a method that is apparently common in North Africa, but unheard of here. Just in case there was any doubt about the symbolism of this butchery, a note was found pinned to his chest, containing death threats against three other public figures.
The resonance of this hideous crime, not only in the Netherlands, but across the whole of continental Europe, is difficult for the British to comprehend. We have no conception of the status accorded to the artist in countries that have known totalitarian dictatorship within living memory. The Nazis and the Communists liquidated or exiled the intelligentsia wherever they could. Persecution cast a shadow across the Continent from which it has still not wholly recovered.
Hence the reverence in which the artist is held. Hence the cult of dissent at any price, however absurd, pretentious or childish. Hence the aversion to censorship of any kind, including self-censorship. For a post-traumatic culture, the artist is a high priest. The murder of an artist for the sake of his art shocks secular Europe rather as martyrdom once shocked Christendom. Theo van Gogh is a secular martyr.
What had he done to deserve such a fate? Submission, the film that occasioned the attack, is by no means an attack on Islam as a religion. It does not, as Rushdie did, ridicule the Prophet Mohammed. What it does is to denounce the barbaric treatment of women in many Islamic societies, focusing attention on forced marriage and the penalisation of rape victims under the guise of adultery. The imagery is deliberately provocative: verses from the Koran are inscribed on a naked woman, to drive home the message that Muslim women are human, too, beneath the veil.
It does not require much imagination to see how this tableau would strike strict Muslims, who regard the Koran as the literal, uncreated word of God, and whose customs forbid the public display of the female face, let alone her body. To them, the broadcast of such an image on television is both blasphemy and sacrilege. In their eyes, it adds to the gravity of the case that the Somali woman who wrote the script of Submission, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is a former Muslim – in other words, an apostate. She has been condemned by fatwa and survives only under police protection.
Van Gogh, as a non-Muslim, was mistakenly assumed, both by the authorities and himself, to be less at risk. In his book Allah Knows Better, however, he added insult to injury by castigating the misogyny and puritanical attitudes of local imams. Defiant to the last, he refused to alter his bohemian lifestyle, as if the Netherlands were still the haven of toleration that it had been since the revolt against Spanish rule four centuries ago.
That habit of toleration is an integral part of Dutch identity. Van Gogh’s death, like that of the politician Pim Fortuyn two years ago, echoed the assassination in 1584 of the Prince of Orange, William the Silent, who is still seen as a martyr not only to the Protestant cause, but also to that of freedom of conscience. The words of the historian Motley about William the Silent – “When he died, the little children cried in the streets” – could have been said yesterday of Theo van Gogh.
In the 17th century, Holland was the only country in Europe where a Jewish apostate, Spinoza, could publish philosophical works challenging the very basis of revealed religion. The Jewish community could expel and curse Spinoza, but neither Jew nor Christian dared to harm him.
Only under German occupation was this tradition of toleration interrupted and temporarily crushed. When the Dutch Catholic bishops made a protest, the Germans responded by deporting clergy of Jewish origin, including the nun, philosopher and saint Edith Stein to Auschwitz. Anne Frank and her family were protected for four years, only to be betrayed as liberation approached. The bitter experience of occupation and collaboration has made the Dutch hypersensitive to intolerance in any form.
Now, with the manifestation of a violent form of intolerance in their midst, the iron has entered their souls. After decades of welcoming immigration and preaching multiculturalism, they now propose to expel failed asylum-seekers and to assimilate those who settle, rather than permit de facto religious segregation. If neo-conservatives are liberals who have been mugged by reality, the Dutch are fast becoming a nation of neo-conservatives.
While the Arab-European League accused the Dutch immigration minister of giving a “Hitler speech” at a rally in protest at van Gogh’s murder, the Dutch know who the real Hitlers are. Even the most liberal society is illiberal when it is a question of survival. The Dutch see those who dream of Europe under a revived caliphate as a threat to their way of life. The prospect of Islamist imams imposing sharia law on Dutch cities amounts, they feel, to a new Nazi occupation.
Unlike his great, great, great uncle Vincent, Theo van Gogh was not a genius. Was he really an artist at all? But van Gogh’s murder has proved him right about the hardline Islamists. Their ideology is inimical to all that the Dutch hold dear. Last night, as van Gogh’s cremation was seen on television, the tension was palpable. Holland is now the crucible of Europe. Not even the most tolerant people on earth can tolerate the Islamists.