Posted on January 6, 2005

Final Cut

Ian Buruma, New Yorker, Jan. 6


Theo van Gogh — fat, blond, absurdly generous toward his friends and madly vindictive toward his enemies, a worshipper of Roman Polanski, a talented filmmaker who never had enough patience to produce a masterpiece, a heavy smoker and consumer of cocaine and fine wines, a columnist of some style and shocking vulgarity, a doting father, a disgusting slob adored by many women, a provocateur, and a man of principle — had embarked on a very different kind of war: a war against what he regarded as hypocrisy and cant. We were slight acquaintances, and I always enjoyed his company. Not being part of the Amsterdam scene, I never felt the sting of his enmity.

Like most people of his and my post-war generation in Holland, Theo van Gogh was marked by stories of the Second World War, when the majority of Dutch people minded their own business while a minority (about a hundred thousand Jews, out of an estimated hundred and forty thousand) were taken away to be murdered. Van Gogh’s family, descended from Vincent’s brother Theo, was exceptional. His father fought in the resistance, as did his uncle, who was executed by the Germans. Van Gogh often referred to the war in his writings. “The jackboots are on the march again,” he wrote of the Islamists in Holland, “but this time they wear kaftans and hide behind their beards.” The Dutch officials, social workers, and politicians who appeased them were, in van Gogh’s eyes, akin to collaborators. A frequent target of his abuse was Amsterdam’s mayor, Job Cohen, who has tried to preserve civic harmony by making a show of treating Muslims with respect and understanding. “If anyone has not learned from ‘40-’45 how unwise it is to want to live with marching jackboots who demand ‘respect,’ it’s the mayor,” van Gogh wrote. Cohen, as it happens, was among the “Jewish masters” whom Mohammed Bouyeri singled out as enemies of Islam.

For van Gogh, the worst crime was to look away. One of his bugbears was the long-standing refusal (since abandoned) of the Dutch press to identify the ethnic origin of criminals, so as not to inflame prejudice. He saw this as a sign of abject cowardice. To show respect for Islam without mentioning the Islamic oppression of women and homosexuals was an act of disgusting hypocrisy. In a free society, he believed, everything should be said openly, and not just said but shouted, as loudly and offensively as possible, until people got the point. It was not enough to call attention to illiberal Muslims; they were to be identified as “goat-fuckers.”

Van Gogh often expressed his admiration for the late Pim Fortuyn, the populist politician, who regularly proclaimed that there was no room for a bigoted religious minority in a liberal society, and that “Holland was full.” Van Gogh called Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002 by a deranged animal-rights activist, “the divine baldie,” partly to annoy the bien-pensant liberals, who were quick to denounce any criticism of minorities as racism. His friend Max Pam thinks that van Gogh’s attitude was mixed with professional rage; like Mohammed Bouyeri, van Gogh had trouble getting state subsidies, not for community centers but for his films. Yet there is no getting around van Gogh’s nasty streak. When the novelist and filmmaker Leon de Winter, whose work often revolves around his Jewish family background, managed to get public money for his projects, van Gogh detected cynical manipulation and sentimental cant. “Hey, it smells like caramel today — well then, they must be burning the diabetic Jews,” he wrote, mocking what he saw as a Jewish cult of victimhood. He described the Jewish historian Evelien Gans as “having wet dreams” about the Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. In the guilt-ridden land of Anne Frank, there is a certain amount of strained piety about such topics, but van Gogh’s response had all the subtlety of the Dutch football hooligans who find it amusing to abuse an Amsterdam soccer club known as “the Jews’ club” by mimicking the sound of escaping gas. Van Gogh seemed to regard delicacy as a sign of fraudulence, and in this he spared no one; Jesus, in his book, was “that rotting fish in Nazareth.”

For all his seeming intolerance, though, van Gogh was one of the few Dutch filmmakers to take a real interest in actors with a Moroccan background. “Najib en Julia,” a series made for television, is a highly sympathetic story about the love between a Dutch girl and a Moroccan boy. And personal attacks, though seldom as virulent as van Gogh’s, are a common feature of Dutch literary politics, where everyone knows everyone else. It is the violent rhetoric of a place where words are normally without serious consequences.


Many things happened as a result of Theo van Gogh’s murder, some violent, some merely bizarre. The rash of arson attacks on mosques and Muslim schools was perhaps to be expected, as were racist messages on Web sites and walls, and even on some of the floral tributes to van Gogh. “R.I.P. Theo!” was the message of one of the arsonists. Almost as predictable were some of the defensive reactions by young men of Moroccan origin, who cheered as they passed the spot of the filmmaker’s death. Friends of van Gogh, meanwhile, organized a raucous party, with a rock band, bottles of champagne ranged around a coffin, and two stuffed goats mounted on a stage, “for those who feel the urge.” This defiance could be seen as typical of cool, ironic Amsterdam. But there was an element also of van Goghian jeering, as though it were necessary, in his memory, to fan the fires a little higher.

In the week following the murder, politicians showed signs of panic. The justice minister, Piet Hein Donner, who is a Calvinist of the old school, suggested that a rather archaic law against blasphemy should be applied, something that had not been done since 1966, when the novelist Gerard van het Reve was prosecuted for comparing his conversion to the Catholic faith to making tender love to a donkey. Donner’s suggestion was not followed. Another politician, Geert Wilders, started a party of his own, the Groep Wilders, with a platform of barring all non-Western immigrants for five years and arresting Islamists, even when, as he put it to me, they are only “prepared” to break the law. Although, like Hirsi Ali, he has to hide from people who wish him dead, this hitherto obscure parliamentarian has soared in the opinion polls, and has positioned himself as the next Pim Fortuyn. In some estimates, his party would capture almost twenty per cent of the Dutch house of representatives if there were to be an election today. (In another poll, asking who the greatest figure in Dutch history was, Pim Fortuyn came second only to William the Silent.)

In the midst of all this zaniness, the commentators talked and talked: “Holland has lost its innocence”; “the end of multiculturalism”; “tolerance has its limits.” The general trend was rightward, and toward an atmosphere of perhaps exaggerated anxiety. Max Pam was not the only person I spoke to who believed that if the authorities didn’t tackle the Islamist problem now Holland would eventually have a civil war on its hands. Conservatives, who had warned for many years that Muslim immigration would cause problems, found new allies among former leftists. And liberals, such as Job Cohen, who had promoted tolerance and multiculturalism were denounced as irresponsible softies.

A key text in this national discussion was by Paul Scheffer, a social critic and an influential thinker in the Labor Party. In NRC Handelsblad, the most important national broadsheet, he wrote, “Segregation in the big cities is growing, and this is very bad news. That is why the soothing talk of diversity and dialogue, of respect and reason, no longer works. Tolerance can survive only within clear limits. Without shared norms about the rule of law, we cannot productively have differences of opinion. . . The self-declared impotence of our government to guarantee public order is the biggest threat to tolerance.” To be sure, Scheffer had been saying this kind of thing for some time, but when old lefties cry out for law and order you know something has shifted in the political climate; it is now a common perception that the integration of Muslims in Holland has failed.