WHEN Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, collected his post from the letterbox on Wednesday he got an unpleasant surprise. Among the bills and junk mail was a letter addressing him as “ugly dog”. It told him he would soon be beheaded.
It was an unnerving way to start the day. Only 24 hours earlier Theo van Gogh, the film maker who had often attacked radical Muslims, had been riding along on his bicycle when a Muslim fanatic first shot and then butchered him on a busy street with the nonchalance of an abattoir worker.
Now other people were being targeted, too, as evidence emerged of a “brigade” of Dutch jihadists preparing to murder “the enemies of Islam” in a terror campaign that would be easier to carry out than the bombing of trains or heavily guarded government buildings.
The carefully planned killing of van Gogh plunged into ferment the formerly peaceful “bicycling monarchy” where, in the good old days, a relaxed Queen Beatrix used to ride about without attracting any attention. It prompted some to rethink their faith in a multiracial society. Others predicted a bloodbath.
“Do not think you are safe,” said the letter to Wilders, who had been planning to set up a party to help to tackle the “Islamic problem” in Holland, “because we will catch you and cut off your ugly head.”
He was not the only one to be threatened. “There will be no mercy” said a document that the killer had held over van Gogh’s chest before skewering it there with a final knife blow to his heart.
By then van Gogh, 47, had been shot several times and was seen by one witness on his knees, pleading with his assailant, “Don’t do it . . . we can still talk about it.”
The response was a knife to the throat. The killer sawed through the neck and spinal column, almost to the point of decapitating him.
Unlike the murder two years ago of Pim Fortuyn, the right-wing populist, by an animal rights activist, the motive for such savagery seemed horrifically clear—to spread terror in Europe’s green and pleasant garden with a theatre of blood more reminiscent of the deserts of Iraq. It has succeeded.
Wilders has been taken into protective police custody along with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal MP of Somali origin who also appeared on the list. Her offence was to call herself an ex-Muslim and jointly to produce with van Gogh a film about the Islamic oppression of women.
The Dutch were not alone in their worries. All over Europe media pundits, entertainers and politicians were forced to ponder the chilling possibility that cross-border co-operation among closely connected jihad cells might mean that they, too, were threatened by the new terror.
For some Dutch officials it was evidence of a social experiment gone horribly wrong. “We were naive in thinking people would exist in society together,” said Rita Verdonk, the immigration and integration minister whose name also appears on the death list.
She added that Moroccan immigrants “have never learnt about Dutch values”, despite efforts to train them to respect the country’s mores.
It is hardly surprising. Many of Holland’s 1m Muslims consider the Dutch government to be depraved in its acceptance of “abominations” such as drugs, prostitution and gay marriage. They want nothing to do with it.
At the same time, Dutch tolerance no longer extends so readily these days to immigration and religious diversity. In graffiti scrawled on walls all over the city, the message is seen repeatedly, “Go home if you don’t like it”.
That was what Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Muslim deputy mayor of Amsterdam, would tell them when he was invited to talk to Muslim groups—and it was enough to get his name put on the hit list as well.
Also named was Job Cohen, the mayor. Then a newspaper received a telephone call in heavily accented Dutch adding the name of Frits Barend, a television chat show host, to the list.
The day would come, said the note found on van Gogh’s body, when “hair- raising screams will be squeezed from the lungs of the non-believers—the sword will be lifted against them”. Enough to give pause to anybody thinking of having a poke at an imam. Free speech itself seemed to be under assault.
“Democracy is threatened,” said Hein Donner, the justice minister, who was horrified to learn from investigators that nine other people had been arrested as well as the killer and were suspected of being part of what one official called a “brigade of Islamic martyrs” preparing to slit the throats of critics.
Tensions rose. Shouting matches erupted between Moroccans and Dutch people at the scene of van Gogh’s killing where well-wishers left a carpet of flowers and handwritten notes, some of them angrily calling for more control on radical Muslims.
At one point a car filled with dark-skinned young men pulled up alongside the shrine. The windows came down to the sound of blaring Arab music and whoops of delight from the passengers. Dutch men paying their respects to van Gogh, a grandson of the famous artist’s brother, yelled at them to move on.
Things were equally tense at the home of the killer’s parents in a sprawling complex of red-brick council housing. Young Moroccans shouted abuse on Thursday afternoon when a Dutch colleague and I tried to ask about the killer. We were obliged to withdraw when a bucket of water was thrown from the first floor.
At a mosque down the road Shahid, a 19-year-old information technology student, seemed a lonely voice of reason among Muslim men who generally tended not to lament the passing of van Gogh. The pudgy provocateur always had a cigarette in his mouth and is remembered for labelling radical Muslims as “goat f******”.
“I was not a fan of his,” said Shahid. “But that does not mean I wanted to cut his head off. The people responsible for this are lunatics who have twisted the Koran to their own purpose.”
But was the killer, who the police referred to only as “Mohammed B”, really motivated by religion? There was little about his background to single him out as the martyr he apparently aspired to be: after the murder his plan, it emerged, had been to get police to shoot him. They did—but in the legs, so his journey to paradise was postponed.
As a child he had attended a normal school and spoke fluent Dutch, as did his parents. Later, as a student, however, he changed from a happy and well adjusted computer science enthusiast into an aloof and secretive stranger, according to Aziz, a former friend.
Aziz believed that the death of Mohammed’s mother three years ago from cancer was in some way to blame. “Until then he used to wear western clothes,” said Aziz. “But after that he would wear only traditional dress.”
He started to grow a beard. Gone was the Mohammed who enjoyed playing football and drinking a beer over a game of pool in the cafe. “If you ever asked him where he was going it was always, ‘Oh, I have to go home and study’.”
Mohammed started attending the Al Tawheed mosque, considered a hotbed of radicalism. Its imam refers to Christians and Jews as “kindling for hell fire” and says homosexuals should be thrown off tall buildings, preferably head first.
Mohammed got a job as a volunteer at a governmentsubsidised youth centre for Moroccans. “He was a fantastic volunteer,” enthused one of the staff, marvelling at his appetite for “having political debates with the youngsters”.
Then he befriended Samir Azzouz, an internationally connected holy warrior accused of planning to blow up, among other targets, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. They stayed at a string of addresses together, watching “jihad movies”, investigators said.
Mohammed also befriended at least one of the Moroccan construction workers employed by a company not far from the house of van Gogh. The company’s van was occasionally seen outside the killer’s last address and it is believed it might have used the vehicle to follow the film maker.
This weekend—as a ninth man was arrested in connection with the case—a political row was brewing over why Mohammed, who was known to the intelligence services as an associate of Azzouz, had not been placed under closer surveillance. Had that been done, it is argued, van Gogh might still be alive. And many other people might be sleeping more soundly.
Murdo Macleod, The Scotsman, Nov. 7
IT PRIDES itself on being the beating liberal heart of Europe, but the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh has convinced many in the Netherlands that the nation’s legendary tolerance has now reached its limit.
Van Gogh’s execution last Tuesday, which has been linked to Islamic extremists, has brought calls for a crackdown on fundamentalists and renegade preachers that would previously have been unthinkable.
Once liberal commentators now want Muslim hardliners to be thrown out of the country, even if they have Dutch passports, and greater surveillance of the wider Islamic community.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest Muslim populations in Western Europe is fearful of being tarred with the extremist brush by a nation which increasingly feels it is being taken advantage of.
Van Gogh, who had made a controversial film about Islamic culture, was shot and stabbed in Amsterdam as he cycled to work. A five-page letter addressed to a female Somali immigrant who scripted the controversial film that Van Gogh directed before she entered national politics, was pinned to his body with a knife.
A Dutch-Moroccan has been charged over the incident, and also with membership of a group with “terrorist intentions and conspiracy to murder a politician”.
The 26-year-old accused, identified by Dutch media as Mohammed B, was also charged with attempting to kill a policeman and a bystander.
The killing has revived memories of the shocking murder of anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn by an animal rights activist in 2002.
Prior to his death, Fortuyn’s views had been condemned by the liberal media. But the slaying of Van Gogh has had a cathartic effect in a country where racial tension and hostility towards foreigners is on the rise.
The leading liberal Amsterdam broadsheet, The Telegraaf, has led the charge with a hard-hitting editorial that would never previously have been published.
“There needs to be a very public crackdown on extremist Muslim fanatics in order to assuage the fear of citizens and to warn the fanatics that they must not cross over the boundaries,” the newspaper said.
“International cash transfers must be more tightly controlled; magazines and papers which include incitement should be suppressed; unsuitable mosques should be shut down and imams who encourage illegal acts should be thrown out of the country.
“This should also apply to extremists who have dual nationality. They have no business here. In addition, the range of extremists to be kept under surveillance needs to be expanded. If more money is required for all this, then that money must be made available. It is more than worth it for the sake of the citizens’ safety.”
Volkskrant, published in The Hague, declared that while Muslims might be infuriated by Van Gogh’s film, they should have taken the film-maker to court rather than engaging in acts of violence.
It said: “Muslims will have to learn that, in a democracy, religion, too, is open to criticism—this applies to Islam no less than to Christianity. Theo van Gogh, in this respect, always purposefully went to the limits of decency.
“Many have regularly had reason to feel hurt or offended by him. In a democracy, those who want to defend themselves against this can go to court. Any other curtailment of free speech is inadmissible.”
The daily Algemeen Dagblad challenged the nation’s Muslims to take to the streets to condemn the killing and “cleanse” themselves as a community in the wake of the murder.
It said: “The has to be the time when voices from the Muslim community must say a massive ‘no’ to this kind of madness. A mass protest made by Dutch Muslims could be the symbolic beginning of a needed cleansing within the self.”
The rising tension in the Netherlands has led increasingly to calls from white Dutch people for Muslims either to accept Western ways or leave the country.
Prior to the killing, a poll found that a third of Dutch people felt threatened by Islam in their midst.
Barry Madlener, a councillor in Rotterdam, where half the population is foreign-born—many from Muslim countries—said: “If you say: ‘I reject the Western lifestyle and I don’t want to fit in your way,’ then I say: ‘Keep away.’
“When the children of these people cannot fit into our society, then the problems will grow.”
The murder has made allies of both freewheeling liberals and traditional church-goers who normally condemn the nation’s drug culture and sexual licence.
Justice minister Piet Hein Donner, regarded as a stern Calvinist with little in common with the ultra-permissive outlook personified by Van Gogh said: “If this is what has happened to this man, who did nothing but express his opinion, then one can no longer live decently in this land.”
A backlash has begun. In the central town of Utrecht, several fires broke out on Thursday at a new mosque belonging to a Moroccan religious association. A police spokeswoman said no evidence had been found of fire-raising but this was still under investigation.
The Dutch cabinet, meanwhile, has made it clear it is considering new ways to tackle Muslim extremists, including stripping criminals with dual citizenship of their Dutch nationality, increasing police powers and boosting the budget of the security service.
Gerrit Zalm, the deputy prime minister, says the cabinet also considered taking action against a mosque in Amsterdam regularly attended by Mohammed B.
Van Gogh, whose great-great-grandfather was the brother of artist Vincent van Gogh, has been described as the Netherlands’ Michael Moore.
The film, Submission, may have been only 10 minutes long, but it caused uproar in the country when it was broadcast at the end of August.
The outcry centred on the stories of four Muslim women who were beaten, raped and forced into marriage, and were asking for Allah’s help.
On their bodies were written verses from the Qu’ran describing the permitted physical punishments for women who “misbehave”.
Van Gogh claimed that he had been deliberately cautious, and would have made the film differently if he really had wanted to shock.
Nevertheless, death threats were soon received.
In a recent interview, Van Gogh was asked how he felt about the threats. Laughing, he replied that no one would believe it worth their while to shoot at the “village idiot”.
As all of the Netherlands now knows, Van Gogh got that one badly wrong.