Theo Van Gogh and the Failure of Everything

BY THIS TIME, you’ve probably heard of Theo Van Gogh, since he’s been dead for more than three months.

Van Gogh was a provocateur, known for saying unpleasant insulting things that he felt people needed to hear. One of those unpleasant things was a near-pornographic short film called “Submission,” which leveled a rather unnuanced critique at the abuse of women in the Muslim world, with the implication, at least that such abuse was inherent to Islam.

In November, Van Gogh was attacked in the street stabbed repeatedly, and his throat was cut His attacker was Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-born son of Moroccan immigrant parents. Bouyeri left a note pinned to his victim’s body with a knife, in which he claimed Islam was the justification for his actions and issued death threats against other Dutch public figures who did not respect his religion.

The popular reaction to the murder was as vehement as the crime itself was brutal. AntiMuslim sentiment in the Netherlands skyrocketed overnight; Muslim schools and mosques were burned and vandalized.

More disturbing than the immediate outpouring of anger, however, has been the response in the world’s newspapers and magazines. An article about Van Gogh’s murder in the latest New Yorker magazine summed up the attitude of both the Dutch people and most of the international press in one line: “it is now a common perception that the integration of Muslims in Holland has failed.”

That article goes on to parrot Dutch populist Pirn Fortuyn’s sentiment that “there is no room for a bigoted religious minority in a liberal society.” Searching for information about Van Gogh will turn up dozens of columns and news pieces expressing similar sentiments. A fairly typical editorial in a U.S. daily paper now asks questions like “at what point does multiculturalism become a kind of anarchy, ora society in which the most ferociously bigoted segments gain domination over the more timid?”

The former quote is from The Providence Journal’s Robert Whitcomb. Michael Radu, in FrontPage Magazine lauded a crackdown on Muslim immigration as “common sense,” since, “as the Dutch seem now to realize, tolerance for the intolerant is suicide.” Jonah Goldberg wrote that “Holland has discovered that it cannot tolerate those who would call off the cease-fire. Daniel Rofiler, in a guest column for die Yale University Daily News, said “There is no possibdity of compromise or coexistence with a culture that regards die mere existence of rights for others as an offense to be avenged by murder and terrorism.”

Don’t take their words for it: Google search “Theo Van Gogh,” and see what comes up.

Suddenly, scarily, it’s become acceptable to talk about things like expelling Muslims from Europe. While no one is yet implying that all Muslims are actually murderers, they are saying they might as well be. The entire concept of religious tolerance appears to be open for debate in die western press, on the account of one dead Dutchman.

But here’s what boUiers me: tile Netherlands is notorious for its historically low crime rates, but still, last year, there were 25 other murders in the city of Amsterdam alone. Two years ago there were 45. Didn’t any of them count?

The son of a Dutch drug kingpin was shot in the face by rival gangsters in December, and I didn’t see a spate of newspaper articles saying that the Netherlands’ drug enforcement system (such as it is) had failed. I don’t want to argue the equivalency of horror; or whether one crime can be equated to anoüier for brutality or senselessness. But I will point out that there seems to be no limit to the level of horror that we will accept as long as the apparent motivation is money or drugs or sex.

I’m thinking of one case, in America, where teenagers tied a man up and tortured him for hours to obtain his ATM PIN code. Hundreds or thousands of people are killed for profit every month, but I hear no chorus of voices crying out that capitalism has faded, or mat die ownership of the means of production is fundamentally incompatible with democratic values. I didn’t even hear anyone say that maybe ATM’s were a bad idea.

When Andrea Yates and Susan Smith drowned their children, no one said that motherhood was a failed institution, and while I heard a lot of explanations for Harris and Klebold’s murderous rampage at Columbine High School, 1 don’t recall anyone saying that teenagers were fundamentally incompatible with public education. It’s too bad, tiiey might have been right.

Let’s be perfectly clear: American’s didn’t talk about banning ATM’s, or capitalism, or children, because Americans in general are fond of ATM’s and capitalism and children. European and American journalists and politicians are now talking about the problem of Muslim immigration because Muslim immigration is something those journalists and politicians are not particularly fond of.

There are words for this kind of behavior.

Some situations do yield themselves to systemic explanations more easily than others. But as soon as religion is involved, suddenly people are very eager to start talking about “fundamental incompatibility” and “irreconcilable clash of cultures,” and even tiiose in the supposedly liberal press are drooling over die opportunity to blame Islam.

And so, as much as I am disgusted by Van Gogh’s murder and die insanity it represents, I am almost equally disgusted by die hypocrites who are using that murder as an excuse to criticize an institution that they personally dislike.

If the measure of an institution’s success or failure is a single dead body, then it can be said definitively that the human race has nothing whatsoever to its credit.

I did not know who Van Gogh was until I read his obituaries, and his death frightened and upset me. As a writer who values the freedom of speech, and the freedom to offend people in particular, I got a sick feeling in my stomach at the thought that this man had been killed like an animal for doing the thing I spend every day trying to do. People who think words and bullets are somehow equivalent make me ill.

It is quite true that there is no place for a bigoted minority in a liberal society. But the people who are saying this now are missing the point, in of their unassailable certainty that it is their society that is liberal, and the rest of the world bigoted.

There is no place for bigotry in any society, and that includes the bigots in press trumpeting the claim that one specific religion is the root of all evil.

They know better. It’s not Islam or capitalism or a lack of good family values that is the root of violence: it’s people. The world is full of crazy, violent, vengeful people, people who are so unsatisfied with something that they just want to hurt others to make up for the emptiness in themselves. Through all recorded history there have been such people, and I doubt they are in any way endangered now. They will seize any available excuse to justify their desire to hurt others, and they will always be wrong.

Mohammed Bouyeri was a sick man with a perverted view of religion. I feel fairly certain that the Qur’an does not in fact, say it’s okay for an individual to assume they understand God’s plan so well that they can go around butchering people they don’t happen to like.

In fact, for most of his life, Bouyeri appears to have been a very secular fellow, who didn’t bother much with religious observance and was well integrated into Dutch society. His conversion to radical Islam happened nearly overnight following a number of disappointments in his personal life. That should not let the scary fundamentalists he fell in with off the hook – they certainly had some influence over what he did, and they should be shunned by all civilized people, along with their twisted interpretation of faith.

But let us not be so hypocritical as to say that one particular belief system is inevitably tied to violence and murder while we wink at all the other violence being done around us every day.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed