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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Amsterdamned Part I and ll

Amsterdamned Part I and ll

MIM: The Murder of Theo Van Gogh and the militant Islamist attack on Holland
by Andrew Anthony
December 14, 2004

MIM: This article is being reprinted in it's entirety as a chronicle of the murder of Theo van Gogh and the present situation in Holland where individuals and the government are now under attack by militant Islamists.

Theo van Gogh Theo van Gogh's career combined directing, acting and writing


Amsterdamned, part one


When Theo van Gogh was slaughtered in the street for his attacks on Islamic fundamentalism, it was also a knife to the heart of the Dutch liberal dream. Now, in a deeply polarised society, can free expression triumph over fear? Special report by Andrew Anthony

Read part two of this article here

Sunday December 5, 2004

The Observer

On a grey Tuesday morning in early November, Theo van Gogh, filmmaker, columnist, interviewer and inveterate provocateur, set out from his home in Amsterdam to make his daily journey by bicycle to the offices of his production company, Column TV. A large, dishevelled character with a shock of unruly blond hair, he was a familiar and distinctive figure on the city streets. Imagine a combination of Boris Johnson and Michael Moore, in girth and media profile if not political sentiment, and it will give some idea of the expansive position he occupied within Dutch media culture. Everyone knew him, or at least knew of him.

Linnaeus Straat, in the eastern quarter, is not the Amsterdam of 17th-century town houses and pretty canals. A broad, busy high street with the kind of shops and cafes you walk by without noticing, it is a picture of unexceptional urban life. Of the hundreds of commuters and shoppers going about their business that Tuesday morning, many would have recognised van Gogh, but one young man was waiting for him.

Dressed in an oversized coat and the traditional Arab cloak known as a djellaba, he stood close to the bicycle lane. At around 8.45am, van Gogh rode by and was knocked from his saddle by a volley of shots fired from a 9mm handgun. He struggled to the other side of the road, where he collapsed in front of a shop selling washing machines. Terrified onlookers ducked behind cars or fled down side streets as the young man crossed the thoroughfare to where van Gogh lay, and opened fire again. Eight bullets were later found in his body.

Bleeding heavily, the 47-year-old father of a 14-year-old boy had pleaded with the gunman: 'Don't do it! Don't do it! Mercy! Mercy!' A woman with a young child also screamed out to the assailant, begging him to stop. He listened to neither appeal, but instead produced a long sharpened knife and proceeded to slit van Gogh's throat so deeply that his head was almost severed. One witness described the young man as behaving with the methodical detachment of 'a butcher'. His final act was to affix a five-page letter to the corpse by plunging another knife into van Gogh's chest. It was addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch MP from Somalia who had collaborated with van Gogh on Submission, a film that suggested that the Koran sanctioned domestic violence.

Having delivered his message, the killer walked quietly away from the scene, speaking briefly to a bystander, before disappearing into a nearby park. Shortly afterwards, 26-year-old Mohammed Bouyeri, a second-generation Moroccan, was arrested nearby, following a shoot-out with police. The justice department announced that he had acted out of a 'radical Islamic conviction'.

The small country with a global reputation for tolerance had witnessed peacetime Europe's most extreme act of intolerance. The whole episode lasted little more than a minute, but its aftermath continues to reverberate in Holland, and may do so for some time to come. It was as if the very savagery of the attack was aimed not just at an individual but everything he represented. As such, the murderer and his victim have been cast as symbols of conflicts now reshaping modern Europe: those between freedom of expression and the protection of ethnic minorities, national laws and religious authority, multiculturalism and integration, rationalism and faith, permissiveness and absolutism.

As inhabitants of one of the most densely populated nations on earth, the Dutch have evolved an attitude known as gedogen. The word translates as a kind of pragmatic tolerance - legislating to put up with something - which is probably a necessary outlook when you live, as it were, in your neighbour's face. It's this concept that has led to Holland's renowned hash-selling coffee bars and legalised red-light districts, as well as initiatives like police protection for gay cruising zones.

In many ways, gedogen has created an environment that ill suits a traditional culture like Islam. It does not take a social scientist to see that a veiled woman might have problems living next to a live sex show. The two seem incompatible in the same universe, let alone the same street. But for many years, a combination of state intervention (imams and mosques are subsidised in Holland) and social detachment (ethnic communities remaining apart from mainstream Dutch life) has enabled this unlikely coexistence to work. The multicultural answer to Holland's cramped diversity was essentially: same street, different universe.

The first clear sign that the Dutch were having doubts about this solution came three years ago when Pim Fortuyn, a maverick gay populist, announced that Holland was 'full' and ran for prime minister on an anti-immigration policy. Had Fortuyn not been shot dead before the election - by an animal-rights protester who said he had acted to protect the Muslim community - many commentators believe he would have gone on to lead the country. Even without Fortuyn, his makeshift party was so successful at the polls that the government adopted a more stringent immigration policy, including a proposal to repatriate 26,000 failed asylum seekers. With the arrival and assassination of Fortuyn, the familiar Dutch maxim of leven en laten leven (live and let live) seemed to pass into history.

The motto of the jihadi martyr could almost be 'kill and be killed'. 'There will be no mercy for the wicked, only the sword will be raised against them,' warned Bouyeri in his letter. In another note, written as a last testament and found on his person, Bouyeri indulged in the desperate self-romanticism of the suicide terrorist. 'These are my last words,' he wrote, 'riddled with bullets ... smeared with blood ... like I hoped.' In the event he suffered a minor gunshot wound.

Like all acts of terror, van Gogh's murder was meant to polarise society, and to an extent it has succeeded. For all its differences, Holland is a country that values consensus as the ultimate virtue, and the initial response was one of unity. As news of van Gogh's death spread, tens of thousands of protesters, including a great many Muslims, poured into Dam Square to voice their support for free speech. But soon afterwards, other more disturbing and divisive reactions were reported. Several mosques and Islamic schools were damaged by firebombs, and in turn there were a number of reprisals against churches. At van Gogh's funeral service, his family and friends were at pains to state that van Gogh would have been 'appalled' by attacks on Islamic buildings.

But it was not just extremists intent on religious or racial war who were set against one another. The murder also drove a wedge through centre-ground opinion. Jozias van Aartsen, the leader of the Liberals, a free-market party that forms part of the right-of-centre coalition government, said that the killing was Holland's '9/11'. In this conception the murder was another front opened by radical Islam in its jihad against Western freedom. Meanwhile the liberal left, particularly in Britain, sought to pin some of the blame for his murder on van Gogh himself. It also worked to diminish the role of Islam at large, insisting that the killer acted alone. The Guardian, for example, claimed that Hirsi Ali - who was circumcised at five, fled from an arranged marriage at 22, and was under police protection from Islamic extremists - and van Gogh had behaved 'with magnificent disregard for the feelings they might be offending'. The same newspaper also claimed, despite contrary evidence, that the killer was 'a lone Muslim extremist'.

The Index on Censorship, an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression, went so far as to accuse van Gogh of 'roaring his Muslim critics into silence with obscenities. An abuse of his right to free speech, it added injury to insult by effectively censoring their moderate views as well.' The article's author, Rohan Jayasekera, concluded by inviting readers to 'applaud Theo van Gogh's death as the marvellous piece of theatre it was'.

The Dutch authorities named Bouyeri as a member of the so-called 'Hofstad cell', which is under investigation for plotting to bomb a nuclear reactor. A series of raids followed on Islamic radicals. In The Hague, a death list of prominent Dutch figures was found after a siege in which militants injured two policemen with a hand grenade. Six people, aside from Bouyeri, have now been charged in connection with van Gogh's murder. Had these events taken place in France, where the school ban on hijabs has angered many Muslims, or even in Britain, a participant in the Iraq war, then there would have been a sense of shock, but much less surprise. But Holland was not an obvious scene for terror.

The question, then, is why was van Gogh killed, and what does his death really mean?

At the funeral service held the week after van Gogh's murder and broadcast on Dutch television, his sister Jantine recalled a conversation she overheard countless times in her childhood. 'My father,' she said, 'was always saying to Theo: "Yes, you can say that, but the point is you don't have to say it."' He was, it seems, a contrarian from the cradle.

He came from the nearest thing to a patrician family in an almost classless country. His great-great grandfather, also called Theo, was the brother and patron of Vincent, the brilliant and troubled painter. His father was a well-known member of Holland's Labour party and his mother equally active in the Liberals, which in Holland is a free-market, right-of-centre party. In other words, he was born into a political difference of opinion.

Attracted to the radical left in his youth, he became a member of the Labour party in the Eighties. But politics always came second to his interest in art. Brought up in a plush suburb of The Hague, he dropped out of law school to take up acting, directing and writing. At the age of 24, he made his first film, Luger, and went on over the years to win five awards at the Netherlands Film Festival. At the same time, he carved out two more careers, first as an outspoken and deliberately provocative columnist for a number of publications (many of which ended up sacking him) and as a surprisingly sympathetic interviewer on Dutch TV.

There is no doubt that van Gogh relished an argument, but he was also capable of making outrageously offensive statements. One example will give a flavour of his retaliatory style. After he had been criticised by the Jewish historian Evelien Gans, he wrote in Folia Civitatis magazine: 'I suspect that Ms Gans gets wet dreams about being fucked by Dr Mengele.' In 1991 he was fined for anti-Semitism following comments he had made about gas chambers in Moviola magazine. In van Gogh's defence, his friends point out that he spared no community or political group, insulting Catholics, Protestants and the Dutch queen. They also say that he matured in later years. 'He used to be provoking just to provoke,' says Gijs van de Westelaken, van Gogh's producer and partner at Column TV. 'But in the past 10 years or so, his provocation always had a greater meaning.'

The man accused of murdering van Gogh was, by contrast, born into a cultural divide. The son of immigrants from Morocco who spoke little Dutch, Bouyeri grew up in west Amsterdam, a working-class and Muslim district known as Satellite City, owing to its proliferation of dishes receiving Arabic TV. Like van Gogh, he was a dropout from college, where he had studied information technology. He had also worked as a journalist, writing pieces in celebration of multiculturalism for a local council magazine. It appears that he was radicalised by the 11 September attacks in America, but his drift towards fundamentalism predates that event and was accelerated, according to locals, by the death of his mother from cancer in 2002.

As far back as 2000, Bouyeri had protested at plans to refurbish the block his family lived in, on the grounds that women would not be able to walk unseen to the kitchen. He lived with his parents, three sisters and brother in a building called Complex 26, in which every household had been assigned a social worker. Bouyeri was one of the few residents who declined to see one.

Bouyeri's father has been described as a 'typical first-generation Moroccan' who worked himself to a standstill. His son, it appears, did not share his industriousness. Bouyeri quit his local mosque after the imam asked him why he was able to pray five times a day every day. 'Don't you have a job?' Wearing a beard and a djellaba, he started to attend the al-Tawheed mosque, the meeting place for radical Islam in Amsterdam. It was here that the 9/11 pilots Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, along with Ramzi Binalshibh, the man accused of co-ordinating the attacks, met in 1999 during a conference on Islamic Puritanism.

And it was here that Bouyeri met Samir Azzouz, who in June was arrested on suspicion of planning to bomb the Dutch parliament, Schiphol airport and a nuclear reactor. Azzouz in turn had links with Abdeladim Akoudad, a Moroccan held in Spain over last year's Casablanca bombings, which killed 45 people. The Swiss newspaper Le Temps also reported that classified Spanish intelligence service wiretaps show Bouyeri in 'direct contact' with Mohammed Achraf, an Algerian accused of plotting to blow up historic buildings in Madrid.

11 September was also a key event for van Gogh. According to van de Westelaken, the attacks did not change his friend's views so much as confirm them. 'He wasn't really surprised, you might say. He'd been warning of this kind of thing for years.'

I met van de Westelaken at the offices that van Gogh did not reach on that Tuesday morning. He was convinced the killing was not a random reaction but a well-targetted attempt to stifle criticism of Islam. 'In terms of terrorism, it was a smart bomb.' On the wall, there was a photograph of van Gogh with Fortuyn, who was shot dead, as conspiracy theorists have noted, exactly 911 days before van Gogh's murder. A further link between both deaths is that van Gogh had just finished a film, 06-05, about Fortuyn's murder, which accuses the security services of complicity.

'They were friends, debating friends,' says van de Westelaken. A trim, handsome man, with neatly coiffed hair and a slick dress sense, he must have made an odd couple with his famously unsartorial business partner. He spoke with much amusement of van Gogh's eccentricities. He remembered him standing outside the Van Gogh Museum with a megaphone, shouting: 'I want my paintings back.' And he recalled the army of girlfriends he had amassed. 'Special women got a ring - three, four, five thousand euros, no problem. He was very generous, always buying the most expensive wine, and always broke.'

A number of reports have implicitly, or even explicitly, referred to van Gogh's 'Islamophobia' and 'racism'. But according to Fatima Elatik, a Labour party politician with whom van Gogh often clashed, the charge of racism was misplaced. He once called her 'a perverse and gullible token Moroccan', when she greeted changes a Dutch playwright made to a play about Islam after he had been threatened. Elatik claimed not to be aware of the threats. All the same, she was present at the demonstration for free speech the night of van Gogh's murder. For a long time, she had refused to talk to him because of his insults. But a year ago, she found herself in the same TV studio. 'We sat at the bar and he was very polite and charming.

I would never call him a racist, because he wasn't.'

Van de Westelaken pointed out that few directors could match van Gogh in either his use or sympathetic portrayal of Moroccans. One of his films was Najib and Julia, an updated Romeo and Juliet, about a second-generation Moroccan pizza-delivery boy and a white middle-class Dutch girl.

'He was not against Islam,' insisted van de Westelaken. 'Everybody to his own faith. He was not against headscarves: if someone wants to put on a scarf, go ahead. He aimed at the extremist side of Islam, and of course the big problem with Islam is that they take themselves so bloody seriously.'

Certainly, few Muslims laughed at van Gogh's habit of calling Islamic fundamentalists 'goat fuckers' - undoubtedly the insult that most offended most Muslims. 'Of course it was controversial to use,' van de Westelaken acknowledged, 'but he had an explanation for that. It seems that the Ayatollah Khomeini in one of his books wrote that if you feel the urge, and there are no women around, you are allowed to fuck a goat.' (This interpretation stems from writings attributed to Khomeini on the proper preparation of meat, in which he appeared to suggest that if a man has sex with an animal, the animal should not be eaten unless the man did not have an orgasm.)

'Maybe the most important thing is to try to get some humour into Islam,' van de Westelaken reflected. He spoke about an open letter to the murderer, in answer to his own letter full of violence, that he and some of van Gogh's friends had read out on TV. 'We hope your leg is better,' it began (the suspect was injured in the shoot-out), in what was an epistolary equivalent of an ironic glove slapping an iron fist.

For Elatik, the lack is not in humour of the Islamic community, but in respect for it. 'The problem is that the attitude in Holland is: as long as you don't bother me, I don't mind that you're here. It's a kind of neglect,' she argues. But it is hard to see Bouyeri's case as one of neglect. Aside from the social worker he refused to see, he appeared to be surrounded by well-meaning professionals. He sat on a committee for a new youth centre, and even visited the Dutch parliament to argue its merits. Civil servants consulted him on how to improve relations between Moroccan youth and the police, after a series of riots in 1998; he was involved in local authority planning decisions; as late as 2002 he took a course in social work; and he enjoyed a position of influence at the community centre in Eigenwijks.

It was not until the summer of 2003 that he finally broke from the community centre, having become increasingly distressed that women were allowed to mix with men, and that alcohol was served. By then, he had started to interrupt meetings with loud prayers to Allah and had informed colleagues that 'Islam is my everything'. He had also begun writing hardline tracts on the internet, using the name Abu Zubair, in honour of the Saudi al-Qaeda commander Abu Zubair al-Haili. If you wanted to select a youth destined for alienation, then Bouyeri was a leading candidate.

Amsterdamned, part two

When Theo van Gogh was slaughtered in the street for his attacks on Islamic fundamentalism, it was also a knife to the heart of the Dutch liberal dream. Now, in a deeply polarised society, can free expression triumph over fear? Special report by Andrew Anthony

Read part one of this article here


Sunday December 5, 2004

The Observer

Despite van de Westelaken's impressive belief, given his bereavement, in the power of humour, it's likely that fewer people will now want to risk offending Islam. Six months ago Paul Cliteur, an academic and critic of multiculturalism, announced that he would no longer write for Dutch newspapers out of fear of damaging his professional prospects, and the growing possibility of violent reprisal. At the time, he was mocked for taking himself too seriously. But his decision now looks in retrospect more like basic self-preservation.

'With the murder of van Gogh,' Cliteur told me, 'everyone who writes takes a certain risk. That's a scary development. What I do is self-censorship, absolutely, but there will be people who take a heroic stance. People who study and write about Islam will have to tread very, very carefully.' In the wake of van Gogh's murder, the minister for justice, Jan Hein Donner, a Christian Democrat, proposed that the blasphemy laws be extended to take into account heightened Muslim sensitivities.

(A similar plan by the British government may go ahead after the next election.) But other members of the Dutch government remain opposed to the idea and want to scrap a law which has not been used since the case of Gerard Reve in 1965.

Reve, a Dutch writer and artist, wrote about having sex with God, who took the form of a donkey, and was found guilty of blasphemy. But he was cleared in a subsequent judgment, and since then it has been accepted that it is possible to say anything about Christianity. Cliteur feels that calls to respect Islamic sensitivities display double standards of religious tolerance. There is little doubt, he argues, that such a concept as Reve's transposed to Islam would result today in the threat of death.

Yet the Dutch parliament recently decided that artists and writers should not be afforded the security enjoyed by politicians. In a rare exception, van Gogh was given protection for 48 hours after Submission was screened. 'Theo was called by a Dutch radio show, which asked about this,' recalled van de Westelaken. 'He said: "Well let's hope that my friends from al-Qaeda comply with the same working hours as the police." This is why he said it was useless to protect him if they did it that way. That's now being misused by politicians who are saying that he didn't want to be protected.'

One Islamist website had pronounced that van Gogh should be 'slaughtered like a pig'. Even so, he was not unduly concerned about his welfare. His address was in the phone book and he took no special precautions in public. Friends say he loved debating with strangers. 'He'd constantly be talking with young Moroccan guys hanging around,' said Tara Elders, an actress van de Westelaken smilingly referred to as van Gogh's 'muse'. 'That was really his point, having discussions with people, a young Moroccan guy, some Dutch intellectual, or a junkie in the street. He was always willing to talk - that was his goal.'

To Hirsi Ali, the fact that he did not seek protection was not the point. In an open letter published just after van Gogh's death, she wrote: 'I know that people at risk, politicians, are forced to have such protection whether they want it or not. This safeguards not only their lives, but also public order and national security.'

Even her most vocal opponents would agree that Hirsi Ali is something of an expert on Dutch security arrangements. She has lived under round-the-clock police protection ever since she renounced her faith on television two years ago. 'Measured by certain criteria,' she said in a studio discussion, 'Islam could be called a backward religion.' Immediately messages appeared on the internet calling for her to be 'shot and knifed'.

No fewer than 17 Muslim organisations signed a declaration condemning the death threats, but Ali Eddaudi, a Moroccan writer and cleric in the Netherlands, spoke for many other Muslims when he dismissed Hirsi Ali 'for pandering to the Dutch' and behaving like a 'model immigrant'. Countless threats have since been made on her life, the one impaled on van Gogh's body being only the most recent and bloody. 'With your apostasy,' it read, 'you have turned your back on truth and you are marching with the ranks of evil.'

In the Index of Censorship article, Rohan Jayasekera claimed that Hirsi Ali had been traumatised by losing her religion and that consequently van Gogh was able to exploit her to his own ends. As Jayasekera cited no evidence for this hypothesis, the reader was left to infer that a black woman would by definition suffer exploitation at the hands of a white man, and furthermore that a rational rejection of faith is inevitably a disempowering experience. Yet the impression gained from Hirsi Ali's letter is of a woman determined to speak her own mind, no matter the cost: 'I feel guilty that I approached Theo with the script for Submission. And that he's dead because of it. In the cold light of day I know that only the perpetrator is guilty of his death. Instinctively, that is confusing. Theo and I discussed at length the possible consequences for both of us. He said, "As soon as such considerations dissuade you from expressing your opinion, isn't that the end of free speech? That is grist to the mill of the Islamists."

'I was prepared to go a very long way to make people sit up and take notice: the Dutch authorities, who have to realise that radical Islam and its supporters have established themselves in the Netherlands; the Muslim population, which must learn to see the unsightly birthmarks of its own religion ... Theo agreed with me on all these points. In his own way and as a filmmaker he tried, as much as possible, not to shut out Islamic youth but to connect with it.

'I feel guilty that I abused his lack of fear, because I know that anyone who tackles the holy scripture is in great danger. A man has been killed in a most abominable manner, simply because of what he believes. This is relatively new for the Netherlands, but in Islamic countries, it's a normal part of life.'

I spoke to a number of Moroccans in Holland and not one expressed anything but disapproval of van Gogh's murder. At several of the mosques I visited, the suspect was denounced as a madman and everyone expressed the wish that things should return to normal. But normal is a relative concept. A taxi driver named Suliman told me that since 9/11, the subsequent war on terror, and the murder of Fortuyn, he had felt a distinct cooling in communal relations. 'A lot of people look at you in an unfriendly way,' he said. 'You can feel more tension, but it's the same everywhere.'

Suliman was originally from the impoverished north of Morocco, like the majority of Dutch-Moroccans. Though earlier immigrants in Holland arrived from its former colonies in Indonesia and the Caribbean, the Moroccans were encouraged by the Dutch government to come in the Sixties and Seventies to fill the labour gap in a rapidly expanding economy.

Today, Muslims are three times more likely to be unemployed than their Euro-Dutch counterparts. They also account for a disproportionate number of crimes. To many on the left, these figures are a simple function of discrimination; to others, mostly on the right, they add up to something else. In her letter, Hirsi Ali wrote: 'The Muslim population must realise that its disadvantages are not so much a function of a weakened belief in God, or of discrimination, as the radicals would have it, but partly their own doing. The treatment of the individual, the position of women, the creation of ghettos like Islamic schools, these are all factors that explain why Muslim communities lag behind others.'

Along with the Turkish community, Moroccans help make up a Muslim community of around 1m people, or about six per cent of the Dutch population. A recent government report predicted that within two generations Allochtonen, citizens of non-Dutch origin (of whom Muslims form the majority), would outnumber Autochtonen, the ethnic Dutch, in the major cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. An equally striking statistic garnered from a poll taken after van Gogh's murder is that 40 per cent of the Dutch do not want Muslims to feel at home in Holland.

Suliman came as a 15-year-old in the mid-Eighties, and though it was difficult at first, he learned the language and adapted to Dutch life. Holland, he told me, was his home. 'I hate Tangiers when I go back now,' he said. 'It's full of foreigners, all hoping to get to Europe.'

He spoke fondly of van Gogh. 'He was an artist, a good interviewer, very funny guy, crazy as well. But he knew what he was saying. He was a smart guy; he knew he was causing trouble and taking a risk.' He was moving perilously close to the 'he was asking for it' argument, which van de Westelaken had compared in its moral inversion to the girl in a miniskirt asking to be raped.

As if suddenly aware of where his line of thought was leading, Suliman paused and considered what he meant. 'In a way, he was a victim,' he continued, as if to say that the shooting and stabbing had by no means guaranteed that status. 'It wasn't him but Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This woman is the cause of all the problems, telling lies about Islam. If she hadn't sucked him into this, he'd still be alive today.'

Hirsi Ali has been in deep hiding since van Gogh's murder, not daring to attend parliament or even be interviewed on the phone, as I requested. By any measure, hers is an extraordinary story. When she was five years old she underwent what she calls 'genital mutilation'. Female circumcision is not an Islamic practice, but one confined to parts of north and east Africa. Nevertheless, Hirsi Ali viewed the procedure within an Islam context. 'Suffice it to say, I remember the lesson, I learnt more than the pain,' she said. 'That to be a Muslim woman is to be born for the pleasure of men.'

At 22, she was sent to Germany to meet a distant cousin from Canada whom her family had arranged that she would marry. She ducked the meeting and fled to Holland, where she taught herself Dutch, and worked as a cleaner and in a biscuit factory, before studying political science at Leiden University (her hero is John Stuart Mill). She joined the Labour party ('I am from the realist wing of the left,' she said recently) and worked as a translator for Dutch social services.

It was while doing this job, she says, that she saw large-scale domestic and sexual abuse within Holland's Muslim community. The Labour party commissioned her to write a report on honour killings, but distanced itself from her conclusion that the non-assimilation of Muslim communities and the misogyny of Islamic culture were the problems. The Liberals liked the sound of her and asked her to stand for MP. In a recent poll, she was named the second most popular person in Holland.

A willowy, elegant woman with a taste for designer clothes, she has the looks of a model and the language of an intellectual. Her standpoint is that Muslim attitudes to women need to be reformed and only Muslim women are capable of reforming them. But not many Muslim women are prepared to join in her campaign.

'I agree with more rights for women,' Elatik told me, 'but I don't agree with the way she goes about it. She's appealing to Dutch society, to middle-class Dutch-origin people. She talks about the emancipation of women, but you can't push it down their throats. If I could talk to her, I would tell her that she needs a couple of Muslim women around her.'

In Submission, the film Hirsi Ali wrote and narrated and van Gogh directed, she made an uncompromising return to the theme of domestic violence. It recounts four apparently true stories of women physically abused by their male relatives. One woman wears a veil and a transparent gown which shows her battered body, and on which are projected verses from the Koran. An example reads: 'The good women are therefore obedient. Those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places, and beat them.'

Even among moderate Muslims, the film was seen as needlessly blasphemous. 'The Prophet never hit women,' said Elatik, who is a practising Muslim. 'Mohammed let his wives do what they wanted. Everything is written in the Koran, and there are many other verses that teach that women should be respected.'

But if that verse was in the Koran, was it morally wrong or right? 'You have to see these things in context,' said Elatik. 'The Koran was written over 1,000 years ago.' Fundamentalists say that it is true for all time. So did Elatik think that this was fit advice for husbands to heed? After a number of further evasions, she finally replied: 'No, of course it is wrong. It's like the Bible: there are many statements in that which are now out of date.'

In which case, if fallible, the Koran is just another text, with no claim to a monopoly on truth. Elatik acknowledged the rationale of this argument, and hoped that in time there would be a more open debate. She cited two reasons that were holding back such a development. The Dutch saw Islam as a matter of private conscience and did not want it to have a public say in matters of social importance. And a 'lack of Muslim scholars' in Holland. She thought that Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi was the kind of man needed to fill the void.

Qaradawi is the Muslim cleric who was controversially invited to London by Ken Livingstone, the city's mayor, to speak against the hijab ban in French schools. According to a dossier compiled by Livingstone's opponents, Qaradawi has written that homosexuality is a capital sin, that wife beating is justifiable, and of the existence of a Jewish world conspiracy. In these respects, at least, he would appear to be in accord with Sheikh Abu Bakr Jabir al-Jasairi, whose book The Muslim Way is on sale at a number of mosques in Holland. Van Gogh was fond of quoting from the book, especially the part which described the appropriate punishment of homosexuals. Sheikh Abu Bakr demands that they should be thrown off rooftops, and if they survive they should be stoned to death.

Elatik dismissed Qaradawi's alleged homophobia by arguing that it was typical of clerics of all faiths. 'All Muslims are really asking for in this country,' she concluded, 'is respect.'

Another taxi driver, who did not want to give his name, seemed in no mood to offer respect. 'They hate us,' he told me, referring to Muslims. 'They hate our way of life. I don't understand. We're supposed to tolerate their culture, but they want to change ours. And if we protest, we're called racists. I like Italy, and when I go there I adapt to their culture, I don't expect them to adapt to mine. Van Gogh was rough with his words, but in Holland if you don't like what someone says you can go to court.'

He drove me out to the house in which Bouyeri lived with several other jihadi sympathisers in west Amsterdam. 'It's a ghetto,' he said, by way of preparation. I'd heard the same thing said by other Amsterdammers. Yet when we arrived, what I saw was a neat row of council-style houses, with a well-tended green. There was no graffiti or litter or boarded-up doors. It was only the women in headscarves, some fully covered, that distinguished the area from any other Dutch suburb.

Bouyeri began renting a small apartment here in 2001, and later other members of the Hofstad cell would come to discuss the teachings of the charismatic Syrian cleric Sheikh Abu Khaled. Just along the street from Bouyeri's place, a 23-year-old called Ali was fixing his car. He said he didn't know Bouyeri. 'Islam is freedom of speech,' he said. 'People can say what they want here - it's a free country. Look around you: this is not a ghetto. We don't have a problem with anyone.'

Just a couple of streets away from van Gogh's office is the al-Tawheed mosque, an inconspicuous grey-brick building. Inside, there is a bookshop selling a colourful array of Islamic texts. The police say that the mosque plays no part in their investigations into van Gogh's murder, although it is under investigation for trading in books, such as The Muslim Way, that incite homophobia and violence against women. In the bookshop, a man sang prayers into a microphone and in a nearby room the faithful knelt to pray.

According to reports, one of the teachings of the al-Tawheed mosque is that it discourages contact with unbelievers. A young man, no more than 20, explained that no individual could talk to me because no one could speak on behalf of the whole mosque. I was given a phone number of a man called Farid, an apparent spokesman, who also told me that he could not speak. Farid sent me to a mosque down by the dockside, where, he said, someone would talk to me. But again, when I arrived, I was told that no one would meet me.

Since van Gogh's murder there have many calls for improved dialogue. But van Gogh was murdered for speaking out, the religious associates of his killer refuse to talk, and van Gogh's collaborator, Hirsi Ali, is in hiding, in fear of her life. The silence deafens the many words that have been written and spoken since that bloody Tuesday morning. The man who would have most dearly savoured a no-holds-barred debate is dead. Van Gogh, his friend and enemies agree, possessed a character that was larger than life. It remains to be seen if his legacy is larger than death.


MIM: If this isn't war what is?

The body of Theo van Gogh lies alone on an Amsterdam street

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