AMSTERDAM (AFP) – Some 20,000 people gathered in Amsterdam to pay homage to controversial Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh who was murdered in the street.
Instead of holding a silent wake protesters on Amsterdam’s central Dam Square made as much noise as possible, banging pots and pans and blowing horns and whistles. The friends and family of Van Gogh had asked for people to make as much noise as possible in support of the freedom of speech.
“The freedom of speech is a foundation of our society and that foundation was tampered with today,” Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen said, after the deafening noise had subsided.
“Theo van Gogh picked fights with many people, myself included, but that is a right in this country,” he added to cheers from the crowd.
In his final column Van Gogh even likened Cohen, who is Jewish, to a collaborator with the Nazi regime at the time of the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.
The massive gathering in Amsterdam came after Dutch society reacted with shock and outrage to the killing of Van Gogh, shot and stabbed to death on Tuesday as he cycled in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street.
Van Gogh was widely known for his criticism of Islam and recently caused uproar with a short film linking domestic abuse with the perceived subservient position of women in the Islamic faith.
It is assumed that Van Gogh was killed because of his outspoken criticism of Islam after police said the alleged gunman was a 26-year-old man with dual Dutch and Moroccan nationality. Officially the authorities will not comment on the motives for the brutal killing.
The murder of Van Gogh immediately brought back memories of the assassination of rightwing populist politician Pim Fortuyn on May 6, 2002 for many Dutch.
Both men had outspoken views on Islam and many other issues and were always trying passionately to stir public debate.
“Van Gogh was provocative but you have to be allowed to provoke people, that is freedom of speech,” said Koos, a 21-year old political science student at the gathering.
Many here fear the fact that Van Gogh’s alleged killer is of Moroccan descent could lead to ethnic tensions in Dutch society.
“We are at a crossroads: do we follow the spiral of alienation, polarisation, fear and hate … or do we make a stand and say ‘no more’,” asked Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, who spoke on behalf of the Dutch government at the memorial.
Ikram, a 31-year-old mother of Moroccan descent, came to the rally with a sign saying ‘Muslims against violence’.
“I was debating whether or not to come, but I decided that as a Muslim and as a Moroccan I should take up my responsibility to show that we do not support this act,” she told AFP.
Nearby, 32-year-old Turgay, a Muslim of Turkish descent, said he was worried about the future of his children with the growing polarisation between Muslims and the traditionally Christian Dutch society.
“The majority of Muslims does not do anything, they do not take a stand against things but we should take a stand to show we do not agree with what is happening,” he said.
At 8 pm local time Van Gogh’s friend called for two minutes of “deafening silence”.
The rally in Amsterdam ended peacefully after about half an hour.
In The Hague, police arrested some 20 people for inciting hatred and shouting discriminatory and racist chants.