Today marks the tenth anniversary of the brutal murder of Dutch writer, filmmaker, and free-speech advocate Theo van Gogh. He died at the hands of a Muslim fundamentalist, Mohammed Bouyeri, who silenced Theo’s criticism of Islam with bullets and blades. For the crime of making a movie (with Ayaan Hirsi Ali) that called out Islam’s widespread misogyny, Theo was assassinated in public, in broad daylight — Bouyeri, after emptying his gun, calmly and methodically almost severing his victim’s head while horrified bystanders looked on. Then he plunged two knives into the body — one pinning a threatening note to Hirsi Ali to Theo’s flesh — and left them there as he tried to make his getaway.
Like the Islamic death sentence received by Salman Rushdie, it was a defining moment in one of the defining fights of our time.
Back when I lived in Amsterdam, I’d met Theo a few times and interviewed him once (about local architecture, of all things; he was quite the renaissance man). I was struck by how easily he carried himself in all kinds of different company. As combative and fierce as he could be in print, in person he was a very social and genuinely curious man, always probing, trying out ideas and theories, soaking up new information. He was blunt but kind, passionate but not wrathful, eager to drive home a provocative point but careful not to twist the knife, so to speak.
In short, he was the antithesis of his assassin.
As a private remembrance of sorts, I’ve been re-reading Ian Buruma‘s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, which came out about two years after the outrageous end of Theo’s life. And just as it had the first time around, the part that floored me was Buruma’s encounter with a second-generation Dutch-Moroccan man, an actor then in his twenties named Farhane el-Hamchaoui.
First, let’s establish this: El-Hamchaoui’s family, Buruma writes, is unusually successful.
His father taught himself to speak Dutch and owned several shops in The Hague. His two elder brothers were the first Moroccans to finish the prestigious Gymnasium Haganum. One works as an IT expert for the ministry of justice, the other for a large insurance firm.
And Farhane? He became a juvenile delinquent, getting into fights, smoking dope, gang-banging girls, mugging elderly people, even robbing the headmaster of the school for difficult children he was sent to. But gradually, he turned his life around; and when Buruma met up with him, Farhane was performing in an autobiographical play about his dubious adventures, a drama intended to convey a message about redemption and the importance of “doing something positive for the community.”
One man to whom El-Hamchaoui undoubtedly owes a debt of gratitude was Theo van Gogh. Theo hired El-Hamchaoui to play in his movie Cool!, launching the young man’s professional acting career.
Now, here’s the passage that grabbed me and won’t let go:
I asked Farhane whether he ever felt Dutch. “Neither Dutch nor Moroccan,” he replied. What if Holland plays soccer against Morocco? “Then I’m for Morocco, for sure! But if I had to choose between a Dutch passport and a Moroccan one, I would choose the Netherlands. You have to think of your interests. A Moroccan passport would be useless. But with soccer I can choose for my own blood.” […]
He had to explain to other Moroccans that Cool! had been made before Submission, the film Van Gogh made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for otherwise he “would have been seen as a traitor.” He had only seen a small bit of the eleven-minute film. “It was totally ridiculous, totally missing the point.” Van Gogh must have been “tricked into making such a film.” Projecting the Koran onto the naked body of a woman is “an insult, the kind of insult I could never forget, like that time I wasn’t allowed to play with my best [white Dutch] friend at school. All Moroccans feel that way. I would never support Mohammed Bouyeri. But about the film he was right.“
“Right to kill Van Gogh?” asks Buruma. El-Hamchaoui doesn’t really answer the question, except to say, with a startling non sequitur,
“No Moroccan respects Mohammed Bouyeri. To commit a murder during Ramadan — that is totally unacceptable.”
When Buruma presses him further, El-Hamchaoui says that murder is “never justified,” but he adds that he can see how Bouyeri was “pushed into it.” He also says that in coffeehouses where Muslims congregate, his fellow believers “say things they would never say in front of a camera” (presumably, “I condemn bloodshed in the name of my faith” isn’t one of those things). And El-Hamchaoui also reveals that someone in his social circle remarked, apparently admiringly, that “millions of Muslim women want to marry Mohammed Bouyeri.”
It’s worth reassuring oneself that El-Hamchaoui is, of course, no extremist — not even close. He’s a modern Muslim. No jihad for him! And why would it be otherwise? He was raised in a famously broad-minded country that bestowed relatively generous subsidies upon immigrants and their children, and whose ruling classes insisted that every Dutch burgher fully embrace the tenets of unfettered multiculturalism. He had the benefit of fairly well-to-do immigrant parents (who arrived poor but thrived), and was offered a top-notch secondary education. He is a full Dutch citizen, with all the rights and privileges that entails. Also, he was given a rare opportunity to become a professional actor, by a man — Theo — whose open-mindedness and company he confesses to have liked a lot.
And yet El-Hamchaoui’s loyalties are murky at best. He openly says he doesn’t much value his Dutch passport, except that it suits his “interests.” He doesn’t stick up for his murdered benefactor, because he understands what drove the killer, and about Submission at least, that killer “was right.” He thinks of Submission not simply as a controversial movie that he didn’t care for, but — despite his knowing and liking the director — as a personal insult, on a par with being discriminated against by the parents of his best friend in school.
In terms of integration, Muslims like El-Hamchaoui — moderate, thoughtful, steeped in western values, capable of change, relatively successful — are the Netherlands’ best hope.
And it’s impossible to not find that a bit disheartening.