Theo Van Gogh, dubbed “the Dutch Michael Moore” for his provocative films and gleefully offensive newspaper columns, was riding his bicycle down a busy Amsterdam street during rush hour. As he did, a man rode up next to him and shot him four times in front of a crowd of witnesses. Van Gogh staggered to the sidewalk and collapsed. Ignoring his pleas for mercy, his assailant shot him twice more and slit his throat with a pair of butcher knives. He left them in the body, attached to a letter condemning Van Gogh’s films as anti-Muslim.
This scene could have opened a thriller; it reminded me of “X2.” But according to the Dutch police and international media, that’s exactly what happened on Nov. 2 of this year. Van Gogh’s spectacular murder and the Dutch response to it opens a window onto his country’s discourse about faith in public life.
Theo Van Gogh was always in poor taste. In fact, over his 25-year career in public life, he was fired from every major Dutch publication for offending readers in some way or another, and this in the famously open-minded Netherlands. But when asked, he would say that he never expected to die for his words. “No one can seriously want to shoot the village idiot,” he said in October. But within weeks, someone did.
He bore little love for his Muslim neighbors. His columns would casually refer to Muslims by obscene, bestial names. His most recent film, an 11-minute piece called “Submission” aired on government television, was a collaboration with anti-Muslim crusader and Dutch member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has called the faith of her upbringing a “medieval, misogynist cult incapable of self-criticism and blind to modern science.” It depicts the oppression of Muslim women in the West by, among other things, showing Quranic verses about male superiority stenciled onto praying Muslim women’s naked bodies: a potent symbol but somewhere beyond incautious. On the Internet, we’d call that flamebait.
None of that is to say Van Gogh was asking for his brutal murder at the hands of an accused terrorist. If anything, the Dutch reaction has leaned heavily the other way, portraying him as a martyr for free speech. But both he and his killer were peculiarly vicious examples of their respective views on life, savaging each other with knife and camera, committed Muslim and committed secularist alike unwilling or unable to deal with the other’s very existence. And they are seemingly not alone. In the wake of Van Gogh’s death, mosques and Muslim schools have been firebombed.
The Dutch establishment’s response to all these terrible crimes has been a mixed bag. The police have done excellent work breaking up possible terror cells, but official calls for tolerance have failed to cool the public mood. A poll two weeks ago named the slain anti-Muslim populist Pim Fortuyn the greatest Dutchman of all time, beating out Anne Frank and Erasmus. At the moment, more Dutch people than not prefer a bigoted secularist, albeit a rather subtle one, to centuries of a Dutch heritage as religiously inflected as it was open-minded and accomplished.
Even the mildest religious call for peace has become paradoxically inflammatory. When a Rotterdam artist painted the Dutch for “thou shalt not kill” on a wall, the city took it down after the imam of a nearby mosque called the sentiment racist. It is unclear to me from English-language press accounts whether the muralist was trying to offend Muslims. If so, he was hijacking a religious principle nobler than he. But if it was meant as an honest attempt to seek common ground, then the government is preaching secular tolerance while squelching religious cries for peace, a counterintuitive strategy at best.
The standard story of the Enlightenment says that it came about, in part, as a response to Europe’s ruinous religious wars. God, its architects believed, was a shot in the street. Faith had to go behind church doors where it couldn’t hurt anyone; the public square was Reason’s ground. Theo Van Gogh’s story is exactly the kind of thing modernity was supposed to make impossible. But in his hands, modernity’s ethos became another holy writ, one in which the Dutch are finding few resources for peacemakers. For Van Gogh’s trouble, he may yet get his own religious war.
It’s not that one potty-mouthed provocateur could singlehandedly bankrupt my American liberal heritage. We’re stronger than that, just as my Christianity is stronger than Torquemada or Roy Moore. But as we work to build a world where all people can sit down at the festal table like the family we are, we need to learn from stories like Theo Van Gogh’s. Liberal secularism is a useful tool. It lets us discuss many things on a level playing field. But we must view it critically too, lest we, like he, let it grow into yet another hateful, oppressive ideology.
In the face of realities like pluralism and imperatives like justice, we will need to talk about the basic issues secularism is built to ignore. We need to take the honesty and respect we’ve learned in the secular field and begin to learn what they look like outside its narrow boundaries. Now more than ever, we need hope and love; and not for nothing are they, together with faith, named the theological virtues.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College. His column will appear on alternate Wednesdays.