Christopher Ashley did a commendable job last month (“In Holland, holy war from the secular side,” 12/2) describing the grisly slaying on Nov. 2 of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. This atrocity, committed in broad daylight on a busy thoroughfare in Amsterdam, hasn’t received nearly the attention it demands, particularly among the liberals whose values so angered van Gogh’s murderer. However, Ashley omits one truly pornographic detail from his account of the killing. The letter that Mohammed Bouyeri attached to van Gogh’s corpse with a butcher knife was not directed at van Gogh, but at Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal Dutch politician who escaped an arranged marriage in Somalia to become an advocate for women’s rights among European Muslims.
Calling Ali an “infidel fundamentalist” — echoing Ashley’s similarly misguided description of Ali as an “anti-Muslim crusader” — the letter warned Ali that she had “unleashed a boomerang and it’s just a matter of time before this boomerang will seal your destiny.” It closed with a cryptic threat of terrorism against “America,” “Europe,” and “Holland” (in that order). Van Gogh and Ali had collaborated on a graphic but accurate short film about Muslim persecution of women. In other words, the crime for which van Gogh was executed and for which Ali’s head is apparently on the chopping block is telling the truth — sometimes, yes, through coarse and insensitive language and imagery — about the bloodlust and oppression intrinsic to jihadist Sharia Islam.
One way to understand the significance of van Gogh’s murder is through a facile equation of the values of the murderer with the values of the murdered. Ashley provides a rather eloquent summary of such a position: “[B]oth [van Gogh] 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.” I fear that far too many Yalies, especially my fellow liberals, would subscribe to the odious notion that “knife and camera” are morally equivalent, or that van Gogh’s film was somehow “flamebait” and that he was therefore at least partly responsible for his own death. It is tantamount to suggesting that making films, which is what van Gogh did with his camera, belongs to the same ethical category as slaughtering an innocent man pleading for his life, which is what Bouyeri did with his knife. Moreover, it is just not the case that the “committed secularist” and the “committed Muslim” were mutually unable to cope with one another’s existences. Van Gogh publicly expressed his opinion that fundamentalist Islam posed an existential threat to liberal Dutch society, and Bouyeri then proved van Gogh correct in the most gruesome way imaginable.
The events in Holland this November were hardly the first occurrence of their type. There may be older examples of artists being credibly threatened with death or injury for their supposed offenses against Islam, but the paradigm case is undoubtedly the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for having dared to satirize the Koran. Then as now — at least to the extent that anyone is commenting on the van Gogh murder in the first place — a significant cadre of liberals is entertaining the thought that the artist in question was somehow “asking for it,” or that his “chickens had come home to roost.” The Ayatollah Khomeini’s promise to pay off whoever succeeded in killing Rushdie had to be explained (so we were told in 1989) as a regrettable but foreseeable consequence of insensitivity to Muslim cultural values. This is precisely the point of Ashley’s column, and if, as I suspect, it is representative of the left/liberal reaction to van Gogh’s death, then it will be quite clear that the left has learned nothing about the unqualified evil of murder, let alone the global applicability of principles like freedom of speech and gender equality.
Let us call this line of thinking by its proper name: capitulation to the extortionist demands of civilization’s enemies, and cynical postmodern indifference to an ongoing assault on the core values of liberal society. There is no possibility of compromise or coexistence with a culture that regards the mere existence of rights for others as an offense to be avenged by murder and terrorism. Try, in other words, to live peacefully alongside someone who regards your very being as an affront to God, and you will fail. Furthermore, everyone who is genuinely committed to defending the rights of women and racial, religious and sexual minorities must necessarily be outraged by their oppression anywhere, no matter how far away. To claim to oppose such oppression but to tolerate its practice in one’s own nation — and this is the circumstance of European cultural relativists confronted by the reality of horrific abuses of women within Europe’s growing Muslim population — is to make a commitment that extends no further than empty rhetoric; in effect, to commit to nothing at all.
Freedom of thought, community and faith, civil equality, and the rights of due process, are meaningless unless they are universally valid. They are also non-negotiable. As Salman Rushdie himself said shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the things that the jihadists are against — “freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex … even the short skirts and dancing … are worth dying for.” Rushdie’s maxim holds true all the more in light of Theo van Gogh’s murder. The viciousness of our enemies — and they are our enemies — remains undiminished. We liberals had better find the courage not to be intimidated.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.