The assassination of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker
whose funeral took place yesterday, is something new in Europe.
There are, of course, antecedents. Fifteen years have passed
since Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie:
the first shot in the culture war between fundamentalist Islam
and the West. But there is no precedent for the ritual slaughter
of a prominent artist in broad daylight on the streets of
For the Dutch, this murder is not only sinister: it is symbolic.
Van Gogh - distantly related to Holland's most celebrated
artist - was shot on his bicycle, another national emblem.
As he writhed on the ground, the murderer cut his throat without
mercy and left him with two knives protruding from his body:
a method that is apparently common in North Africa, but unheard
of here. Just in case there was any doubt about the symbolism
of this butchery, a note was found pinned to his chest, containing
death threats against three other public figures.
The resonance of this hideous crime, not only in the Netherlands,
but across the whole of continental Europe, is difficult for
the British to comprehend. We have no conception of the status
accorded to the artist in countries that have known totalitarian
dictatorship within living memory. The Nazis and the Communists
liquidated or exiled the intelligentsia wherever they could.
Persecution cast a shadow across the Continent from which
it has still not wholly recovered.
Hence the reverence in which the artist is held. Hence the
cult of dissent at any price, however absurd, pretentious
or childish. Hence the aversion to censorship of any kind,
including self-censorship. For a post-traumatic culture, the
artist is a high priest. The murder of an artist for the sake
of his art shocks secular Europe rather as martyrdom once
shocked Christendom. Theo van Gogh is a secular martyr.
What had he done to deserve such a fate? Submission, the
film that occasioned the attack, is by no means an attack
on Islam as a religion. It does not, as Rushdie did, ridicule
the Prophet Mohammed. What it does is to denounce the barbaric
treatment of women in many Islamic societies, focusing attention
on forced marriage and the penalisation of rape victims under
the guise of adultery. The imagery is deliberately provocative:
verses from the Koran are inscribed on a naked woman, to drive
home the message that Muslim women are human, too, beneath
It does not require much imagination to see how this tableau
would strike strict Muslims, who regard the Koran as the literal,
uncreated word of God, and whose customs forbid the public
display of the female face, let alone her body. To them, the
broadcast of such an image on television is both blasphemy
and sacrilege. In their eyes, it adds to the gravity of the
case that the Somali woman who wrote the script of Submission,
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is a former Muslim - in other words, an apostate.
She has been condemned by fatwa and survives only under police
Van Gogh, as a non-Muslim, was mistakenly assumed, both by
the authorities and himself, to be less at risk. In his book
Allah Knows Better, however, he added insult to injury by
castigating the misogyny and puritanical attitudes of local
imams. Defiant to the last, he refused to alter his bohemian
lifestyle, as if the Netherlands were still the haven of toleration
that it had been since the revolt against Spanish rule four
That habit of toleration is an integral part of Dutch identity.
Van Gogh's death, like that of the politician Pim Fortuyn
two years ago, echoed the assassination in 1584 of the Prince
of Orange, William the Silent, who is still seen as a martyr
not only to the Protestant cause, but also to that of freedom
of conscience. The words of the historian Motley about William
the Silent - "When he died, the little children cried
in the streets" - could have been said yesterday of Theo
In the 17th century, Holland was the only country in Europe
where a Jewish apostate, Spinoza, could publish philosophical
works challenging the very basis of revealed religion. The
Jewish community could expel and curse Spinoza, but neither
Jew nor Christian dared to harm him.
Only under German occupation was this tradition of toleration
interrupted and temporarily crushed. When the Dutch Catholic
bishops made a protest, the Germans responded by deporting
clergy of Jewish origin, including the nun, philosopher and
saint Edith Stein to Auschwitz. Anne Frank and her family
were protected for four years, only to be betrayed as liberation
approached. The bitter experience of occupation and collaboration
has made the Dutch hypersensitive to intolerance in any form.
Now, with the manifestation of a violent form of intolerance
in their midst, the iron has entered their souls. After decades
of welcoming immigration and preaching multiculturalism, they
now propose to expel failed asylum-seekers and to assimilate
those who settle, rather than permit de facto religious segregation.
If neo-conservatives are liberals who have been mugged by
reality, the Dutch are fast becoming a nation of neo-conservatives.
While the Arab-European League accused the Dutch immigration
minister of giving a "Hitler speech" at a rally
in protest at van Gogh's murder, the Dutch know who the real
Hitlers are. Even the most liberal society is illiberal when
it is a question of survival. The Dutch see those who dream
of Europe under a revived caliphate as a threat to their way
of life. The prospect of Islamist imams imposing sharia law
on Dutch cities amounts, they feel, to a new Nazi occupation.
Unlike his great, great, great uncle Vincent, Theo van Gogh
was not a genius. Was he really an artist at all? But van
Gogh's murder has proved him right about the hardline Islamists.
Their ideology is inimical to all that the Dutch hold dear.
Last night, as van Gogh's cremation was seen on television,
the tension was palpable. Holland is now the crucible of Europe.
Not even the most tolerant people on earth can tolerate the