Human Rights

Van Gogh, European Purity and the "Muslim Problem"

The tragic death of controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh has become the catalyst for the demonization of Europe's Muslim population and for a striking re-evaluation of the meaning of tolerance.
The death of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh has unleashed a brutal cycle of hatred, familiar from Europe’s past, bringing the simmering xenophobia that lurks beneath Europe’s genteel surface to boiling point. Through his brutal murder – he was shot and stabbed repeatedly by a Dutch Moroccan man on Nov. 2 – Theo Van Gogh has become the catalyst for the demonization of Europe's Muslim population and for a striking re-evaluation of the meaning of tolerance.

Van Gogh, who wrote fierce diatribes against European Muslims, recently created controversy with the short film "Submission." The film’s images of Quranic verses, plastered over a naked woman, inflamed Muslim passions in Holland.

"Submission" was positioned as a film championing Muslim women. Women’s rights within Islam are, of course, a long-debated topic. There are myriad crises in the way that Muslim peoples and countries treat women. But many of these issues are linked to culture, misogyny, poverty, and above all, male fear of female advancement – not religion. In fact there is very little in Islamic texts that condones such behavior. But Theo Van Gogh had little patience for such nuanced discussions. Instead, "Submission" is a jumbled attack on abuse of Muslim women, which makes no distinction between distortion of religion and actual theology.

Longtime readers of Van Gogh's weekly column in the Dutch newspaper "Metro" know very well that his intention was not to reform male chauvinism, but rather to express crude bigotry. In his columns and interviews, Van Gogh called Muslims "goat fuckers" and "the Prophet's Pimps." His latest book, which lampooned Muslims as backward obscurantists, was defiantly titled "Allah Knows Best." His collaborator on "Submission," Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was equally florid, calling the Prophet Mohammed a "pervert" and a "tyrant." Theo Van Gogh's attacks were not limited only to Muslims. He blithely attacked Christian and Jewish symbols, once saying, "It smells like caramels – they must be burning Jewish diabetics."

All of these prejudices found full expression in "Submission." The film came about through Van Gogh's collaboration with right-wing Dutch-Somali MP Aymaan Hirsi Ali, an "ex-Muslim" who now denounces her former religion. Telling the story of a Muslim woman who is pushed into a forced marriage and then raped by her uncle, the 9-minute film intersperses a voice-over with images of Quranic verses on a praying woman. The woman is completely naked, only her face is covered with a veil. Across her breasts, navel, and thighs is a thin diaphanous cloth, through which text from the Quran is clearly visible on her body. Nude to the camera, she repeatedly bows down to pray. The camera lingers with a fetishist’s eye over her nakedness, at one point zooming in on her raised finger (used during prayer to indicate the one-ness of God).

European fascination with the veiled (and unveiled) Muslim woman is nothing new. During the colonization of North Africa, the eroticization of the "harem woman" was a trope of European art and literature. Van Gogh's film is a modern version of the same colonial male fantasy – a vision where the European male is the only liberator of Muslim women. The nudity in the film adds nothing to a critique of Islam, but it applies a calculated slap to the face of Muslim piety. There are many valid critiques of women's status in different Muslim societies, with their own specific colonial histories. Such work is already being spearheaded by Muslim theorists, activists and academics such as Fatima Mernissi, Asma Jahangir, Asma Barlas, Sachiko Murata, Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud and Kecia Ali.

Though Van Gogh’s work was irresponsible, damaging and filmed with contempt, nothing can justify his murder. Just as Van Gogh was intolerant of Muslims, his murderer was intolerant of free speech. By pushing society into chaos, Van Gogh’s killer also hoped to spark a conflagration between the Netherlands and its Muslim immigrants. In the weeks following the murder, there were fire-bombings and attacks against 20 mosques and two Muslim schools. During the Bosnian conflict, Shabil Aktar wrote, "The next time they build gas chambers in Europe, it will be for Muslims." While that comparison may be excessive, anti-Muslim hysteria, eerily similar to the judeophobia of the 1930s, is steadily rising in Europe. Already, there is talk of developing a national database that will track the “risk profile” of immigrants in the Netherlands. The Dutch government has also said it will close all mosques teaching "non-Dutch" values. What exactly those "Dutch values" are is left unclear.

Of course, not all the trends are negative. A proposal to require mosque imams to give sermons in European languages, instead of Arabic, has been supported by local Muslim leaders. In another positive development, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende urged the European Union to work harder on integrating ethnic minorities. Citing the frenzy of reprisal attacks, he said, "The strong reactions and counter-reactions after the death of Van Gogh shows there is tension in our society. In Europe, we have to learn from one another in the area of integration of minorities." While Balkenende is a rational voice, there are equal numbers of voices that are pushing for extreme measures. In a Dutch government with prominent right-wing demagogues like cabinet ministers Rita Verdonk and Gerrit Zalm, and Members of Parliament Gert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, there is a strong possibility of excessively zealous legislation being pushed through. The American experience, where decades of civil liberties gains where jettisoned in the post 9/11 hysteria, can serve as a blueprint for European right-wingers.

Beyond the controversy and the senseless murder, the bigger issue for Europe is to confront anti-Muslim racism. Dr. Tariq Ramadan has argued that European Muslims are simultaneously a distinct entity and part of the European fabric. But Europe continues to treat Muslims as permanent outsiders – inassimilable and hostile to "European values."

Talking about Europe's continued marginalization of its Muslim citizens, Abu Rishe Al-Mawali wrote, "Muslims are not the Borg. There is no central hive mind where all Muslims are controlled. I tire of Muslims always having to apologize for their very existence." Unlike America, which is an immigrant nation at its core, the European psyche is still obsessed with notions of purity. Muslims are seen as foreign bodies that are contaminating Europe. The most strident voices against "foreigners" come from Europe's best-known cultural figures, who have made this ugly racism fashionable. Best-selling French author Michel Houllebecq has made a career out of literary complaints about "French women who only sleep with Algerians and Moroccans." Former sex symbol Brigitte Bardot has been fined four times by French courts for inciting racial hatred, including her statements about France being over-run by "sheep-slaughtering Muslims" and opposing interracial marriage. In England, former Labor MP and BBC presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk caused an outrage after he called Arabs "suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors."

The most piercing voice comes from Italian legend Oriana Fallaci, who came out of a 10-year exile to write the post 9/11 diatribe, "The Rage and the Pride." Calling Muslims "vile creatures, who urinate in baptistries" and "multiply like rats," Fallaci mourned how they were invading and violating her native Florence ("Terrorists, thieves, rapists. Ex-convicts, prostitutes, beggars. Drug-dealers, contagiously ill"). After the book became a runaway bestseller in Italy, she expanded her critique to encompass all of Europe, and its "kindness" towards Muslim immigrants: "Europe is no longer Europe. It is a province of Islam, as Spain and Portugal were at the time of the Moors. It hosts almost 16 million Muslim immigrants and teems with mullahs, imams, mosques, burqas, chadors."

These cultural commentators have helped to create an environment in which far-right and neo-Nazi politicians like Jean Marie Le Pen, Jorg Haider, Pia Kiaersgaard, and the late Pim Fortuyn have entered the mainstream of European politics.

The key factor that drives fears of Muslim immigrants is the plummeting birth rate among white Europeans. Similar to Israel, it is the "demographic time bomb" that is today the specter haunting Europe. The Dutch government estimates that, by 2010, at present rates of immigration, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht would have Muslim majorities. Recent opinion polls have shown Islam, immigration and integration to be the top three concerns for the Dutch voter. In addition, Turkey's entry into the EU accelerated the fear that Europe's borders, which kept it white and Christian for centuries, were finally crumbling. Each far-right politician has made paranoia about "Muslim hordes" a central platform of their appeal.

Writers, filmmakers, and politicians are only the most naked expressions of Europe's simmering xenophobia. Much more prejudice hides below the surface, waiting to explode. The frenzy of violence after the Holland tragedy revealed the monsters lurking in Europe's backyard. Theo Van Gogh's tragic death should be mourned, and his killers apprehended. Muslims must work vigorously to root out the tiny band of extremists in their midst who are distorting the message of Islam. But Europe must also look inward, and heal itself, in order to integrate its Muslim peoples. There can be no better reply to those who want to throw up the walls of Fortress Europe.
Naeem Mohaiemen is Editor of Shobak.Org and Director of the documentary Muslims or Heretics?.
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