AMSTERDAM — Two years after the assassination of populist politician Pim Fortuyn by the hand of a white animal rights extremist, Holland is once again in shock. Now it is the murder of filmmaker, columnist and writer Theo van Gogh — distant descendant of the artist Vincent — that reverberates across this most liberal and tolerant of countries.
Like Fortuyn, whom he admired, Van Gogh was a radical libertarian, a champion of free speech who refused to be constrained by taboos or social codes. I know from experience what it felt like to be the target of his invective. His pen could be vulgar and radical, and he managed to offend me more than once. In 1984, after I directed a feature film, Van Gogh accused me of “selling out my Jewish identity”, although there was not a single Jewish character in the picture. Writing about Jewish writers or filmmakers he made jokes like: “Hey, it smells like caramel — they must be burning Jewish diabetics.” His attacks continued for almost 20 years.
To be clear: Van Gogh did not limit himself to Jewish topics. He attacked Christian values and symbols. And after the death of Fortuyn, who warned that Holland’s open culture would clash with its growing Muslim community, Van Gogh turned his attention to Islam.
In his columns, no holds were barred, earning him many enemies. In tolerant Holland, it meant that many went out of their way to avoid him, including me. Yet despite this, he still belonged to the artistic establishment. He worked for the leading television companies, for newspapers and magazines, and last August he caused a sensation by collaborating with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali who fled to Holland 10 years ago, became a political scientist and subsequently won a seat in parliament. Two years ago Ms. Hirsi Ali declared that she no longer considered herself a Muslim. Death threats followed and she was given round-the-clock protection by the Dutch secret service, to the delight of the electorate who hailed her as the true heir of Fortuyn. Moreover, she was black, beautiful, elegant and knew Islam inside out.
It was the film that Van Gogh and Ms. Hirsi Ali made, “Submission,” a literal translation of the Arabic “Islam,” that appears to have led to Van Gogh’s death. In his 20 minute movie, based on Ms. Hirsi Ali’s script and screened on television last August, Van Gogh portrayed written passages from the Koran on partially clothed female bodies to accentuate the hostility to women of the texts. The intention was of course to provoke and initiate a discussion among female Muslims. But within the context of modern and often brazen filmmaking in Holland, the film turned out to be reasonably cautious and subtle. In fact, it led me for the first time to write something positive about Van Gogh. I commented in Elsevier magazine that “people who are offended by this film have a big problem.”
Van Gogh made no concessions in his statements or in the conception of his film to the sensibilities of Holland’s Muslim immigrants and their children. He was an artiste provocateur, troublesome, offensive, hyperbolic, but quite accepted within the ample confines of Dutch cultural parameters.
But an observant Moslem, a son of immigrants who found work, prosperity and freedom in the Netherlands, was unable to accept that unbelievers might criticize or ridicule what he holds sacred. Having shot his victim, the murderer, clutching a knife in both hands, tried to cut off Van Gogh’s head — “as if he were slicing bread,” as one eye-witness related. He dressed himself in traditional Moroccan garb and ritually slaughtered the infidel, like an animal. He stuck a note on Van Gogh’s chest with his knife. It appears to contain Koran texts. If that is true, he did to Van Gogh what Van Gogh did to the actresses and extras in Submission — the essential difference being that the actresses could wash the words away and leave the studio without a care, while the texts on Van Gogh were cut into his dead flesh.
This difference highlights one of the main problems of Arab-Islamic cultures: An inability to view the world abstractly and to transcend their sacred texts. The Islamic peoples are weighed down by the unbearable burden of the Koran, which still to this day offers no prospect of free interpretation.
In the heyday of our multicultural utopia, the Dutch political and intellectual elites believed that radical Muslims and radical libertarians could co-exist peacefully in the same society. In recent years it became clear that this was an illusion, although the subject continued to be avoided in the politically correct media. Fortuyn broke the taboos surrounding the problem of immigration and paid with his life. Van Gogh paid the same price for a provocation which, had he attacked Christianity rather than Islam, would hardly have raised an eyebrow in today’s largely secular Holland. But he aimed his barbs at Mohammed, not Jesus, and found himself in a cultural minefield laid by young radical Moslems in Holland’s urban districts.
Mr. de Winter, a Dutch novelist and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is currently finishing a new novel, “The Right of Return.”