The Death of van Gogh

The Death of van Gogh
A Dutch journalist explains why the controversial filmmaker was gunned down on an Amsterdam street. TAP talks to Marc Chavannes.
This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

In the weeks after the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist on November 2, Holland, a country known for its culture of tolerance, experienced unprecedented levels of racial and ethnic violence. Last Wednesday, Marc Chavannes, Washington correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, talked with TAP’s Mark Goldberg about the rise of the contentious Dutch Muslim subculture and the repercussions of van Gogh’s murder.

A Dutch friend of mine told me, “I went to bed in Holland but woke up in a completely different country.” Does this capture the prevalent mood in the Netherlands right now?

The van Gogh murder is a little bit like our 9-11. The degree to which the United States had changed after 9-11 was hard to fathom in Europe. Now, this one murder seems to be having a similar effect on my fellow Dutch nationals.

In Europe we have experienced our own homegrown terrorism for years, so although Dutch people felt enormous solidarity with Americans after 9-11, many asked, “Aren’t Americans a bit too focused on themselves when they keep saying that 9-11 was some huge paradigm shift?”

The Netherlands, right now, is undergoing a similar sort of attitudinal change. It will be interesting to watch whether this change sparks a shift in Europeans’ generally hostile attitude towards George W. Bush’s aggressive foreign policy and his “axis of evil” style approach to the world.

Could you explain how the Dutch understand a “pillarized” society? Very few Americans are familiar with this concept.

When one talks about the “pillarization” of Dutch society, what they mean is a political system predicated upon compromise. It is a pluralistic tradition that was born out of an enlightenment era recognition that no one religious group — that is the Catholics, Protestants, or others — will ever emerge as a clear majority of the population.

In practice, throughout much of the last century, what pillarization meant was that Catholics, Protestants, and secular social democrats built up completely separate institutions for themselves. From political parties, to separate trade unions, schools, radio and television stations, and even weekend sporting clubs, the groups didn’t intermingle much. The dominant attitude was live and let live. So long as it didn’t affect you, one didn’t concern oneself with the goings-on of the other group. In a way, this was the social and political shape of what many people refer to as the Dutch culture of tolerance.

And the 20th century saw the decline of the pillars?

In the last decades you saw the emergence of a secular reality that deprived the pillars of their significance. Whatever the resulting “Dutch” identity, religious affiliation became less prevalent. By the later decades of the 20th century, the old system was crumbling. For example, trade unions merged and newspapers stopped telling their readers for whom they should vote.

At that time, the Dutch experienced their first big wave of Muslim immigrants.

In the 1950s and 1960s a large number of Dutch industrial corporations needed more labor. They couldn’t find that in Holland or Europe so they looked to countries with too many hands and too few jobs — mainly Turkey and Morocco. The government labeled the people who were offered contracts “temporary guest laborers.” There was no return policy, and in time many were entitled to remain permanently and let their families come over.

Now in Rotterdam and Amsterdam you have second- and third-generation children of immigrants who are Dutch, speak Dutch as their first language, but who, to a certain degree, have not been well integrated into mainstream Dutch society. They remain between two cultures and a few are prone to listen to radical Islamist sirens.

Many schools in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht have grown to teach an immigrant majority. These so called ‘black schools’ bear out the problems of incomplete integration.

It seems that the wave of Muslim immigrants has ushered in a revival of the pillarization formula.

Whereas the Dutch pillarization model was crumbling, all of a sudden, Dutch politicians, most notably the Christian Democrats, proposed this Dutch pillarization approach for Muslims. So, for example, Muslims were given, according to the old formula, the right to organize Muslim schools with state support.

While some of the schools worked, others didn’t too well and apparently became breeding grounds for an ideology that wasn’t respectful of western liberal democracy. Under the old model, the inspector of schools would make sure that a Protestant, Catholic, or secular school adequately taught things like math, languages, and [physical education]. But school inspectors wouldn’t check what they were teaching about religion — that was considered their own personal business. The traditional hands-off policy has painfully shown its limits with these schools.

Were politicians slow to respond because of a general taboo against placing judgment on those who belong to a separate religious group?

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Multiculturalism was tried and tested in many European countries, but it came very natural to the Dutch with their pillarized system. We have had a lot of policies well-tailored to multiculturalism, I mean, what’s more logical than saying, “I’m Catholic, you’re Protestant, go ahead! You’re Muslim? Fine!”

But we have not done a lot to really help people integrate. For example, we hesitated for very long on whether we should demand that new immigrants learn the Dutch language or teach them in their own language.

That said, we certainly have had a couple of moments when people were speaking out against multiculturalism. However, no one did this with great punch and charisma until Pim Fortuyn emerged as a political force. He came from nowhere politically to create a party that may have been the second largest in Parliament if not for his assassination in May 2003. This proved that there was a huge reservoir of popular unease with the taboo against criticizing how Muslims conduct their business.

To his supporters, Pim Fortuyn seemed to lift this intolerable burden of political correctness from the public debate. What happened after his death?

In the climate following Fortuyn’s assassination, without a clear critic of multiculturalism, people like Van Gogh emerged to fill that void.

In the American press he is dubbed a “filmmaker,” but he was more than that — he was a provocateur. He sometimes used terrible language and he was absolutely convinced that not just Islamic fundamentalism, but Islam itself is a “primitive religion” (as he called it).

He was an essayist, on radio and TV, and had a website which was his refuge whenever he was kicked out of a newspaper column — which actually happened a lot because no editor in chief can maintain a columnist who crosses the line week after week. But it was revelatory and fascinating for the mixed responses his work emoted from the public.

In many ways, tensions between the Muslim immigrant population and the white Dutch native population have been brewing for years. Is van Gogh’s murder simply a violent manifestation of this tension?

More than anything else, it was the ritual fashion in which Van Gogh was executed that made it abundantly clear to most Dutch people that now we are talking about the real thing: Islamist fundamentalism.

How, then, is this shaping public opinion?

A new Fortuyn is emerging, or so he likes to think: Geert Wilders, who split with the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. In the meanwhile there is a fierce debate about the limits of multiculturalism, free speech, and the long-cherished culture of tolerance.

For example, in the last year or two, the well known Dutch novelist Leon de Winter has become an outspoken ambassador for what can be considered neoconservative points of view. He writes a blog in which he links frequently to the National Review and Wall Street Journal op-ed page and other like-minded American sources.

As long as the subject matter of his blog and columns was terrorism and the war in Iraq, he seemed to be somewhat out of sync with popular opinion in the Netherlands. A majority of Dutch people probably didn’t see his point, and neither did they recognize that his intellectual counterparts were a very clearly defined section of the American Commentariat.

After the Van Gogh murder, he suddenly seems more in step with popular sentiments in the Netherlands. With the same links, same convictions, and same deep distrust of what he calls the Islamization of Europe, his views are now more palpable to the public.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

• This article is available on The American Prospect website.

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Mark Leon Goldberg, “The Death of van Gogh”, The American Prospect Online, Dec 3, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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The American Prospect, USA
Dec. 3, 2004
Mark Leon Goldberg

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday December 16, 2004.
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