Van Gogh's killer was a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent, Mohammed Bouyeri. He was a theocratic fascist of the Islamic variety, not all that far removed in outlook from today's Christian nationalists and Dominionists in the US, of which there seems an infestation that pest control agencies have not yet got to grips with: monotheists who will not tolerate another's god, even less so another's no god.
It is quite a while since I read Murder in Amsterdam. Thoughts of it flooded back to me while writing a piece on the Irish theocrat, Enoch Burke. Not that Burke has ever expressed a desire to kill anyone who does not believe what he believes they must believe. I had sought out Ian Buruma's book upon learning of Van Gogh's murder; eventually receiving it as an Xmas gift from my wife in 2008.
Van Gogh was very much in the avant-garde of the right to offend school. For his television interviews he would select as an opponent the most vociferous and uncouth bigot he could persuade to debate, and then press all the right buttons that would unleash a string of invective and religious curses.
For an already partisan audience it worked. Here was Islam represented by Rage Man frothing at the mouth and enthusiastically endorsing beheadings. Van Gogh would rile them even more by addressing them as goatfucker. Not that he had a great following while alive. Over the years as his reputation for being anti-Muslim had soared, his ratings had dropped. A return to the top was secured posthumously, maybe out of curiosity rather than sympathy. Prior to that he had been sacked by virtually every TV company he had worked for.
Muslim immigrants and their families, who constituted about one sixteenth of Dutch society were already feeling unwelcome in a country they felt was othering them. Once while driving through Amsterdam with a former republican prisoner who lived in the city, I commented about how welcoming Dutch society seemed to be to immigrants. He told me not to be fooled, that underneath the liberal façade was a deep vein of racism.
The ingredients in the melting pot seemed not to melt that well. Multiculturalism was being pilloried as a policy failure. Buruma sets out the context with accomplishment as he moves to explore the limits of tolerance. Bouyeri had emerged from a culture that had celebrated 9/11 on the streets and played football with wreaths laid in memory of Dutch war dead. It was contemptuous of the liberal dimension to cultural and social life in the Netherlands. Get your high from The Prophet not the pipe. Bouyeri, who while a student had threatened people who drank alcohol, was apoplectic at Submission, a short film just over ten minutes in length, directed by Van Gogh in collaboration with by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Two men on a collision course, one who saw himself as an assassin for Allah, the other professing to regard himself as a harmless jester who also took to annoying Jews for their beliefs. Van Gogh once told Hirsi Ali that she, not he, was in danger: she was the real apostate, he was just the village idiot. His humour remained with him even in death. At his memorial service there were two stuffed goats on stage just for those who might feel the urge.
Even if a cynic is tempted to quip don't poke the goat, account still needs to be taken of what Bouyeri told the court. He claimed not to have killed Van Gogh because he called Muslims goatfuckers. His application of the death sentence was out of religious conviction: he was compelled to "cut off the heads of all those who insult Allah and his prophet ... I acted out of faith" - the same faith that did not allow him "to live in this country, or any country where free speech is allowed."
Towards the end of the book, Buruma observes that:
the death wish in the name of a higher cause, a god or a great leader, is something that has appealed to confused and resentful young men through the ages and is certainly not unique to Islam.
Ian Buruma, 2007, Murder In Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. Atlantic Books. ISBN-13: 978-1843543206.
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