Even by the grisly standards of ritual killing, it was shocking. On 2 November in Amsterdam the Dutch iconoclast and film-maker Theo van Gogh was dragged from his bicycle in broad daylight and murdered. His killer, a bearded Dutch-born Islamic radical of Moroccan descent, shot him six times and, as he pleaded for his life, slit his throat through the spinal column with a butcher’s knife, almost decapitating him. The assassin then impaled a five-page declaration of ‘holy war’ into van Gogh’s chest.
The slaughter of the film-maker — who was also a TV chat-show host, a Big Brother contestant, a newspaper columnist, and the great-great-grand-nephew of Vincent — plunged Europe’s most liberal, tolerant and multicultural society into (in the words of its Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende) ‘a maelstrom of violence’.
The government declared ‘war on extremism’, and quickly uncovered a network of Dutch Islamic radicals who were plotting to kill other leading ‘enemies of Islam’ and were linked to the terrorist attacks in Casablanca and Madrid. Two politicians were taken into police protection, one of whom was the subject of a video on the Internet offering paradise for anyone who decapitated him. Three policemen were injured when they came under grenade and gunfire attack by Islamic radicals in a 15-hour siege in The Hague. Religious violence spread. More than 20 mosques, churches, Islamic and Christian schools and Muslim community centres were attacked by arsonists and vandals. Muslims and non-Muslims now live in a country afraid of itself, and what it has become.
At least, though, the Left in the Netherlands has seen that there is a clash between liberal democracy and cultural relativism; that some cultures are simply not compatible with Western traditions of freedom and tolerance; and that the old distinction between evil right-wingers and cuddly left-wingers no longer makes sense. It is one thing to turn a Christian church into a mosque, quite another to get radical Islam to accept liberal democracy. Outside the Netherlands, however, the Left has yet to learn these lessons.
Van Gogh himself was a child of the Left. He did not discriminate when he decided whom to offend. He had deeply upset Christian and Jewish groups, who made written complaints about him. His mistake, however, was to offend Muslim sensibilities. His ten-minute film Submission showed actresses depicting real Muslim women speaking of their experience of domestic violence, including forced marriage and rape by relatives. The women were shown nearly naked, with their skin covered with Koranic verses which endorse domestic violence, such as ‘And those [wives] you fear may be rebellious admonish, banish them to their couches, and beat them.’ (It is because of verses like this that Ken Livingstone’s mate, the homophobic, terrorist-supporting cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, endorses wife-beating.) Van Gogh made the film with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian woman who sought asylum in the Netherlands to escape a forced marriage and who is now a Liberal MP and a fierce critic of her former religion. She received death threats for denouncing Mohammed as a ‘pervert in the modern sense’ because he married a six-year-old girl, Aisha, when he was 53.
True to his polemicist style, van Gogh said lots of objectionable things about Muslims, such as calling extremists ‘goatfuckers’. But that doesn’t excuse the Guardian pigeonholing him as a ‘loudmouth racist’ as a way of avoiding thinking about the complexities of the issue. He was a lifelong socialist, from a leading left-wing family. A journalist friend of his told me at his funeral: ‘He was left-wing, but he had his eyes open. He started seeing these dark developments in society, and surprised himself by having right-wing thoughts.’ A staunch Dutch feminist who knew him told me that his work standing up for women oppressed by religion had inspired her to dedicate her life to it.
Van Gogh was a friend of Pim Fortuyn, the populist politician murdered two years ago for offences against Islam. The hate-mongering Left demonised Fortuyn as a far-right racist, but he was no such thing. On the contrary, he was a flamboyant left-wing homosexual sociology professor who firmly opposed racism and had many black followers. But he started campaigning against Muslim immigration and denounced Islam as ‘backwards’ when homosexual teachers were sacked in the Netherlands because Muslim parents didn’t want their children taught by gays. He was outraged that decades of campaigning for gay rights was going backwards, and that everyone was too frightened to speak out.
What angered them all — van Gogh, Hirsi Ali and Fortuyn — is the way the intolerant left-wing hegemony of political correctness was strangling free speech and democracy — not just causing the problems in the first place, but trying to destroy those who discuss them. At his funeral, van Gogh’s mother, Anneke, lambasted the ‘politically correct thought-police’ while his sister spoke about his ‘aversion to violence and crimes against democracy’.
Political correctness led in the Netherlands to decades of the ‘politics of denial’, with politicians and media refusing to address a looming crisis. One of the first to analyse the problems was Paul Scheffer, professor of urban sociology at Amsterdam university, who wrote a ground-breaking essay in January 2000 which noted that despite the much-trumpeted multiculturalism, there was an increasingly radicalised resentful ethnic underclass, particularly of Muslims.
The famed Dutch ‘tolerance’ was, he said, based on looking the other way, but he warned that that was no longer possible with ethnic minorities heading for a majority in the four largest cities. Furthermore, he said, ‘there are cultural differences that do not lend themselves to concession, compromise or buying off’. In the same essay, he wrote: ‘None of the unspoken expectations, such as the idea that integration was simply a matter of time, has turned out to be right. So the house of cards known as the multicultural society collapses.’ He concluded, presciently, that ‘the multicultural fiasco that is taking place poses the greatest threat of social unrest’.
The murder of Pim Fortuyn broke the taboo on talking about immigration, and the murder of Theo van Gogh has broken the taboo about tackling Islamic radicalism. The politically correct Left is now ridiculed in the Netherlands. A sign at the site of his murder says it all: ‘Theo rests his case’. But outside the Netherlands, the Left is drawing a different conclusion. In a sickening essay, Rohan Jayasekera, the associate director of Index on Censorship, a group which supposedly defends freedom of speech, blamed van Gogh for his own murder. He wrote that the film-maker was guilty of ‘an abuse of his right to free speech’, his ritual slaughter was ‘his very own martyrdom operation’ and we should ‘applaud Theo van Gogh’s death as the marvellous piece of theatre it was’.
Unable to make the moral distinction between offending someone and murdering them, Index on Censorship has forsaken liberal democracy in the clash of values that faces us; but it is not alone. In Britain, the government wants to introduce laws supposedly to ban ‘incitement to religious hatred’ but which will inevitably be used by Islamic activists to silence criticism of their religion and culture.
Democracy too is under attack, with Belgium’s largest political party, the Vlaams Blok, banned last week. Attracting a quarter of the vote in the Flemish region, the anti-immigration separatist party was disbanded becaus e it fell foul of anti-racism laws; unable to beat it in public debate or at the polls, its left-wing opponents killed it in the supreme court. In western Europe in the 21st century, the Left is getting courts to ban political parties because they are too popular.
Repellent though much of Vlaams Blok is, the bigger threat is from courts banning democracy. Democracy works because it is a valve for people’s concerns. What do the Belgian elite want the Flemish to do — overthrow the state in violent revolution? The racist British National party is also repellent, but it is a legally constituted democratic party. The government’s response to the BNP winning a few council seats is to ban all civil servants from being members, and many in the Labour party want to ban it outright.
By curbing free speech and political parties, and demonising those who fight for gay rights and against domestic violence, the Left is telling the world that multiculturalism is incompatible with liberal democracy. The Left’s loss of faith in liberal democracy is a result of its naive belief in human nature. The creators of multicultural societies believe they can abolish tribal feelings of belonging based on shared values, history and culture. Just as communism could only be upheld by totalitarianism, so multiculturalism is being upheld by curbs on free speech and democracy. The lesson of the Netherlands is that there is only so much you can do to change human nature, and the more you shut off the valves of debate and democracy, the more human nature — in all its ugliness — will assert itself, often violently.
Anthony Browne is the Times’s Europe Correspondent.