Base deeds in a Low Country

Fred Halliday examines the broad historical issues of a Dutch society in crisis

November 20, 2008

The assassination of the Dutch filmmaker and maverick Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in November 2004 appeared to be - beyond the intrinsic horror of the event and the ghastly attempt of the murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, at the ritual slaying of his already dying victim - a new milestone in the deteriorating relations between the Western and Islamic worlds in general, and between Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands and Dutch society.

In this book Ron Eyerman, professor of sociology at Yale University and co-director of its Center for Cultural Sociology, attempts, from the vantage point of his own knowledge of Dutch society and the Dutch language, and from the theoretical framework of cultural studies that he deploys, to set the assassination of van Gogh in a broader symbolic, cultural and historic context.

For Eyerman, the event was a public drama and part of a broader crisis of Dutch society that included the slaying of the politician Pim Fortuyn two years earlier (by a Dutch killer), and the collective guilt occasioned in Dutch society by the failure of its troops, deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, to prevent, or meaningfully intervene in, the mass killing of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.

Eyerman is an astute, careful analyst and he has much to say that is new and pertinent about the van Gogh case. Yet a reader not entirely convinced by the analytic reach of his overall framework may express some doubts. In the first place, it is questionable whether this event, ghastly as it was, did really mark a major change in Dutch society: relations between Muslim immigrants and Dutch society as a whole had already been deteriorating for a number of years, not least in the aftermath of the massive media coverage in the Netherlands of 9/11. The underlying cause was the rising tension in the hitherto white working-class districts of the major cities where immigrants, from Turkey and Morocco above all, had settled. In retrospect, the killing by Bouyeri appeared to be a one-off action, more akin to the death of John Lennon than to that of Archduke Ferdinand.

The Dutch idyll of a non-violent national politics, of some special Dutch innocence, had already been shattered by the death of Pim Fortuyn, an event that had nothing to do with Muslims. Indeed Fortuyn himself, with his rhetorical attacks on Islam and Muslims, had contributed to the degeneration of relations.

As for Eyerman's claim that the death of van Gogh and public reaction to it were to be seen in the context of the overall trauma of Dutch society during and after the Second World War, this must remain speculation: indeed, for someone like me, who remains sceptical of political or ideological explanation in terms of the legacies of the past, of collective "unconsciousnesses", "substrata" and the like, most evidently in the work of Samuel Huntington, Eyerman's argument is unconvincing.

A sceptical attitude to cultural explanations, and indeed to Dutch claims of particularity and exemption from prevailing norms of taste and discretion, may also yield a different conclusion to Eyerman's as to the issue of freedom of speech. On this, the Dutch can no more lay claim to some exotic national peculiarity, in this case a right to "unfettered abuse", termed scheldkritieken, than can other claimants to national exceptionalism: the Spanish for murdering animals in public displays of sadism, the Americans for allowing virtually uncontrolled possession of firearms, or the British for going abroad in gangs of shirtless youth drinking and vomiting across the streets of continental Europe.

There can, and should, be limits on public statements, not in regard to satirising religious beliefs or ancient "prophets" (you cannot "insult" someone who has been dead for 1400 years) but in regard to insulting groups of living people.

Here it is a category error to include The Satanic Verses: at no point in that book does Salman Rushdie insult Muslims, indeed one of the main themes of the book is an attack on racism towards Asian immigrants in Britain; of the 12 Danish cartoons, only one, that of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, thus implying that all Muslims are terrorists, would fall into this group.

In the case of Theo van Gogh, however, his words were, by any civilised standards, abominable: Eyerman, like other authors on this matter, does not quote what van Gogh actually said, but I will. Apart from other diatribes and slanders, Muslims, he said, were geiteneuker, literally "goat-fuckers". Any decent society, whatever its supposed discursive exceptionalism, should have prohibited such a statement and, were it made, to punish the perpetrator.

Theo van Gogh should not have been murdered. He should, however, have been arrested and compelled to issue an apology. Had this occurred, Dutch society would have demonstrated its ability, cultural traumas or not, to meet its moral obligations towards immigrants. And, probably, Theo van Gogh would still be alive today.

The Assassination of Theo van Gogh: From Social Drama to Cultural Trauma

By Ron Eyerman

Duke University Press

232pp, £52.00 and £13.99

ISBN 9780822343875 and 44063

Published 25 October 2008

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