PARIS – Can angry young Muslims dictate what is and is not acceptable in the traditionally open-minded world of Dutch arts? In the past few weeks, it appears, the answer has been yes.
The main film festival in the Netherlands, now going on in Rotterdam, canceled a short documentary denouncing violence against Muslim women that was made by Theo van Gogh, who was killed in early November. An Islamic militant is accused of the crime.
The film’s producer said he pulled the film on the advice of the police after receiving threats.
At about the same time, a Moroccan-Dutch painter went into hiding after a show of his work opened on Jan. 15 at a modern art museum in Amsterdam. The museum director said the painter, Rachid Ben Ali, had received death threats linked to his satirical work critical of violence by Islamic militants.
The two incidents have reinforced fears among many Dutch that fast-growing non-Western immigration is having a negative impact on social attitudes in the Netherlands. Newspaper columnists and members of Parliament have warned in recent days that if people capitulated to intimidation, they would only encourage Islamic militants. Some have pointed to the recent events as signs that militants are trying to impose their agenda and are undermining free speech in the Netherlands. A few people have quietly asked if self-censorship might be acceptable to keep the social peace.
“It would be very regrettable if we had to start accepting self-censorship, if we could not show this kind of protest art,” John Frieze, the curator of Ben Ali’s show at the Cobra Museum, said. “We’ve been pleased with the show, not only because the work is good, but also because it generated much debate with young Muslims attacking and defending it.”
The exhibition, part of a series of cultural events called “Morocco-Netherlands 2005,” was opened by a prominent Moroccan-born politician in Amsterdam, the alderman Ahmed Aboutaleb, who delivered a strong plea for freedom of expression. But in a sign of the times, Aboutaleb was accompanied by bodyguards and has had police protection since he received death threats from Islamic militants.
In Amsterdam, a city known for its ebullient cultural life, local people say that threats to painters have not been heard since the occupation by the Nazis during World War II.
The Cobra Museum said it had no intention of removing any of Ben Ali’s work, about 40 recent paintings and drawings. The artist, who had been criticized earlier by some Dutch-Moroccans for homosexual themes in his work, has now apparently infuriated his critics with angry sketches that include suicide bombers and what he calls “hate-imams,” evil-looking preachers, vomiting excrement and another spitting bombs.
Since the opening of the show, the artist has stayed away from his home and his workshop. “He has been very overwhelmed by the threats and the controversy,” Frieze, the museum curator, said. “His work is very topical and controversial, but that is part of the nature of modern art and we mustn’t shy away from it.”
In Rotterdam, where the annual film festival devoted to young, independent filmmakers opened this week, the anger over the withdrawal of the van Gogh film continued. The film, titled “Submission,” used words of the Koran written on the back, stomach and legs of partly dressed women to denounce women’s oppression in the name of the Koran. It provoked widespread Muslim anger when it was televised last fall.
The author of the documentary, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of Parliament who was already under police protection, was sped out of the country on government orders. But van Gogh, who directed it, declined protection and ignored threats against him. He was shot and killed on an Amsterdam street, and his throat was slit.
Mohammed Bouyeri has been charged with murder in the killing. The police say he left a letter on his victim, listing others who would be targets.
The Rotterdam film festival intended to show “Submission” as part of a panel discussion Sunday called “Film-making in an Age of Turbulence,” involving filmmakers who had suffered censorship in Russia, Indonesia and Serbia.
But the producer, Gijs van de Westelaken of Column Films, said in an interview that he had withdrawn the film because he did not want “to take the slightest risk for anyone of our team.”
“Does this mean I’m yielding to terror?” he said. “Yes. But I’m not a politician or an antiterrorist police officer, I’m a film producer.” The people behind the killing of van Gogh, he said, had already achieved what they wanted, “to frighten the country.”
The withdrawal of the film has set off many reactions, among them a letter from several members of Parliament to the mayor of Rotterdam asking him to intervene. The producer said that the mayor had called him, but that he was sticking by his decision.
“This is not a freedom of speech issue,” he said. “The film has been shown on television, fragments have been replayed and the text has been published. It’s just the wrong moment right now.”
Hirsi Ali, who spent three months in the United States after van Gogh was killed and is now back in Parliament, has announced that she would not give up her criticism of the mistreatment of women in the name of Islam. She said she was already writing a new film, “Submission Part II,” “and perhaps even three and four.”