When on November 2, 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri shot thirty-nine-year-old Theo van Gogh and cut his throat with a curved machete, he used a second knife to pin on Van Gogh’s chest a note calling for a holy war against unbelievers. The note was addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had written the film called Submission (2004) that Van Gogh had directed to protest Islamic abuse of women. The film’s projection of passages from the Qurՙn onto the naked bodies of young women agitated the Netherlands’s large Muslim community and especially inflamed the intense Bouyeri. The author of this eleven-minute documentary, Hirsi Ali, was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1970 but lived in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Ethiopia before settling with her parents in Kenya, where she was residing when in 1992 her father put her on a plane to Canada to marry a cousin. Upon landing in Frankfurt, however, she phoned a Somali acquaintance who arranged for her passage to Volendam, the Netherlands, and a home with a Somali woman who helped her win political asylum.
Hirsi Ali found a married couple with whom to live and to teach her Dutch. Still a devout Muslim while living with her hosts in the village of Ede, after studying political science at Leiden University Hirsi Ali read Atheïstisch manifest: Drie wijsgerige opstellen over godsdienst en moraal (1995; atheist manifesto: three philosophical essays on religion and morality) by a Dutch philosophy professor named Herman Philipse, had a love affair with Philipse, and abandoned her faith. Buruma states that “intellectual, political, and sexual liberty were intimately linked in Ayaan’s mind.” Her newfound convictions made her a defendant of the Enlightenment values that she says she learned from such thinkers as Karl Popper, Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Hayek, and Norbert Elias. The Enlightenment, Hirsi Ali says, “strips away culture, and leaves only the human individual.”
By this time, in 2002, Hirsi Ali was a member of the Dutch parliament and speaking openly against Islam much to the anger of the Netherlands’s large Muslim minority. Her most provocative act came in a television documentary in which she asked twelve-year-old Muslim students to declare their main allegiance, to Allah or the Dutch constitution. When they chose Allah, she lectured them on how the constitution forbade the rejection of Jews and homosexuals as taught in the Qurՙn. Critics claimed she was encouraging violence, and multiculturalists of the Left began to see her as a sympathizer with the established white male party of regenten, or free enterprise conservatives. The regenten, however, resented her disturbing the status quo. The controversy convinced her to write a screenplay spoofing Mohammed, and she enlisted the irreverent Theo van Gogh to direct it.
Van Gogh was just the right person for Hirsi Ali’s project. He came from a prosperous family in the Wassenaar suburb of The Hague, and his father, Johan, was the grandson of Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent van Gogh, the famous painter. The family has always had what Buruma calls a “rebellious streak.” Johan’s brother, also named Theo, refused to sign the Nazi loyalty oath and joined the Resistance where he forged papers and hid Jews but was arrested in 1945 and executed. His mother’s family, the Wibauts, helped found the Social Democratic Party and also participated in the Resistance.
Theo’s own career had followed in the spirit of the 1960’s when Dutch youths participated in the revolt against the authority of the middle aged. Buruma identifies the 1964 satirical television program Zo is het toevallig ook nog’is een keer (that’s the way things happen to be) as the beginning of the rebellion. The third program in the series, Beeldreligie (screen religion), ridiculed the devotion of middle-class homes to television. A student read passages from the Bible with the word “screen” substituted for “God,” a blasphemy that elicited widespread outrage and threats of violence, especially from Dutch Nazis. The rebels were known as Provos, short for Provocateurs, and in his teens Theo van Gogh became one of their heirs.
Unlike the vicious character portrayed in his favorite film, A Clockwork Orange (1965), the young Theo was no criminal, but his argumentativeness, his smashing of neighborhood windows, and his contribution of his father’s best wines to his all-night parties forced his mother to evict him once he had finished high school. He then became a bohemian, wandering around Amsterdam drinking and taking drugs. In 1981 several rich friends financed his first film,...
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