Theo van Gogh: Hero, Anti-Semite, Misogynist or Islamophobe?
Herman de Tollenaere
THE MURDER of Dutch film maker and columnist Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam on 2 November 2004 shocked many people. Not only in the Netherlands but also abroad, reactions were, understandably, often emotional. Many commentators described Van Gogh as a martyr in the fight for free speech. That leaves the question: free speech for himself and people who shared his views, or also for his targets?
Many reactions, e.g. in Britain, were by people who didn’t know the writings of either Van Gogh or his critics first hand in Dutch. I will try in this article to help provide this information, necessary for a rational assessment.
So, first, the murder is terrible, must be condemned, and everyone should make an effort to prevent violence like this from happening again. However, if I were to keep saying that one plus one makes three, and then someone murdered me, I hope no one would write that I was a mathematical genius (as at least some people seemed to do in the case of Van Gogh – not on mathematics, but you get the point).
Theo van Gogh’s inspiration was films like A Clockwork Orange, and the writings of French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline (a supporter of Hitler during World War II), both of which took human depravity as their central theme.
So let us see, from what Van Gogh himself said, what he really stood for. (There is more – in Dutch – on Van Gogh in the archives at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/linksnederlands.)
Van Gogh on Jews
He pictured Jewish TV presenter Sonja Barend in a concentration camp, and Jewish author Leon de Winter in "Treblinka-style fornication with barbed wire around his dick". When Jewish historian Evelien Gans criticised Van Gogh, he wrote in Folia Civitatis magazine: "I suspect that Ms Gans gets wet dreams about being fucked by Dr Mengele." He hoped (Volkskrant, February 1995) Gans would sue him: "Because then Ms Gans will have to explain in court that she claims that she does not get wet dreams about Dr Mengele."
Van Gogh on women (including right-wing MP Ayaan Hirshi Ali)
Ms Ali is an MP for the VVD party, which is in government and is the most openly pro-capitalist party in parliament. Arguably, they are the Dutch equivalent of the British Tory party (though more "secular", without the Tories’ Christian fundamentalists). The VVD, and Ali, and Van Gogh, have enthusiastically supported the government’s expulsion of tens of thousands of refugees from the Netherlands, including Somali women who are refugees from female circumcision and who now have to fear it if the responsible VVD minister succeeds with her expulsion plans. (Female genital mutilation, by the way, is not an Islamic custom, as it happens in Somalia and among Christians in Kenya. It is not found among Turks or Moroccans, the biggest groups of immigrants from Muslim countries in the Netherlands.) In a parliamentary speech Ms Ali proposed that the African continent should not be given another cent of aid.
Anja Meulenbelt quotes Theo van Gogh as saying that feminists should stop campaigning against husbands’ violence in marriages: "Gentlemen who give a tough hiding are quite attractive to some ladies really." That remark was on women in general, not especially on Muslim women. But, as we know, about a hundred years ago, Lord Cromer, who was the boss of the anti-women’s suffrage league in Britain, sounded very "feminist" in colonial Muslim Egypt.
The theme of Ali’s and Van Gogh’s film was Islamic wives beaten by their husbands, which was said to be inspired by the Koran. Muslim women who had suffered domestic violence reacted very angrily to the film when it was shown on Dutch TV: "I was beaten by that no good husband. Not by the Koran!", one objected. "Making this a Koran issue will just give them an excuse." The film was sort of soft porn David Hamilton-Emmanuelle style featuring a naked woman (with a Christian Moluccan actress playing an Islamic woman) in see-through clothes with verses from the Koran written on them. The women who objected to the film said this cheapened and sensationalised their extremely real issues with their husbands.
On a British internet forum, a comparison was made between "Van Gogh making films vividly critical of Islam and the likes of Bunuel or Scorsese who made films that challenged the basis of Catholicism". However, there is a difference. Bunuel and Scorcese came from a background where Catholicism/Christianity was the dominant religion, at least during their childhoods. While never-a-Muslim Van Gogh called all Muslims, most of whom in the Netherlands are a lot poorer and more powerless than he was, "goatfuckers". Not once: probably a hundred times or more in writing (I did not count).
The internet message continued: "There is therefore no comparison with the BNP or NF, whose staple diet is attacks and violence by Black men against White women, not intra-communal violence." However, even though Van Gogh, in contrast to Ms Ali, was no party politician, intra-communal violence, including hypocritical pity for the victims of female circumcision, was the staple diet in party political broadcasts by the now defunct Centrumpartij, then the Dutch sister party of the British extreme Right, over 10 years ago.
When, in 2002, Pim Fortuijn (he himself preferred the more "aristocratic" spelling Fortuyn) founded an anti-immigration party with four other people, one was former Centrumpartij leader J. Boiten. (When his past came out after Fortuijn’s death, Fortuyn’s – their spelling – party dismissed Boiten from his position as a parliamentary assistant. Boiten, however, claims Fortuijn knew all about his Centrumpartij past.) Van Gogh helped Fortuijn write his political speeches. Fortuijn wanted him to stand as an MP for his party, but Van Gogh refused, as he hated other prospective candidates.
Can a fascist party be led by an open gay in some individual cases, even though gay bashing is a main point of the extreme Right? Yes it can. Michael Kühnen, the leader of the National Socialist Action Front of Germany, who died of AIDS in 1991, was openly gay and had a macho theory to justify it. Right now, Michiel Smit (see photos on http://www.geenstijl.nl/paginas/michielsmit) the leader of the Nieuw Rechts (New Right) in the Netherlands is openly gay. Though fascist competitors have used that against both of them.
Van Gogh on war and socialism
Van Gogh on migrants from Muslim countries
However, nothing justifies the murder of Van Gogh. The main immediate effect of it has been a further racist backlash in the Netherlands, with an Islamic primary school in Eindhoven fire-bombed for the fourth time, and mosques and buildings of secular Moroccan immigrant organisations attacked at night. Very many Dutch Moroccans participated in, and/or organised, protests against the murder of Van Gogh. However, that did not impress the bigots. Vice Prime Minister Zalm (VVD) declared, in George W. Bush style, "war on extreme Islam".
Who killed him and why?
Again, there was never any excuse for this terrible murder. It seems murderer and victim had something in common: both fairly intelligent but mentally disturbed. Van Gogh often suffered from depression, according to the Dutch daily NRC. So, indeed, he certainly cannot be equated to a calculating racist politician who is neither alcoholic nor takes drugs.
Dutch poet Remco Campert wrote: "De mortuis nil sini bene" [speak only good of the dead]. That is a maxim which Van Gogh violated consistently. I think I would insult him if now I would say nice sugary things about him." Campert continued his article with Van Gogh’s quotes on Jews. He concluded: "These are not really the words of a true hero of free speech."