On November 2, 2004, the Dutch film-maker and polemicist, Theo van Gogh, was killed on the streets of Amsterdam by Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Dutchman of Moroccan origin. It was a political execution carried out as an “act of faith” by a man who had lived off State welfare handouts for the past three years. As he stated in his trial, Bouyeri had no personal enmity towards van Gogh; he merely despised everything van Gogh stood for.
There are two versions of the grisly murder I have come across. In Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (Atlantic Books, 2006), Ian Buruma wrote that Bouyeri confronted van Gogh as he was cycling to work: “He shot him calmly in the stomach, and after the victim had staggered to the other side of the street, shot him several more times, pulled out a curved machete, and cut his throat—‘as though slashing a tyre’, according to one witness.”
“Leaving the machete firmly planted in van Gogh’s chest, he then pulled a smaller knife from a bag, scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded the letter neatly, and pinned it to the body with this second knife.”
Buruma quotes an eye witness to the killing also saying, “I heard Theo van Gogh beg for mercy. ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it’ he cried…His killer was so calm. ”
British journalist Andrew Anthony’s The Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost his Innocence (Jonathan Cape, 2007) proffers a slightly different version. “I was astounded,” wrote Anthony, “when I learned of the brutal and public nature of the killing. ‘Can’t we talk about this'’ was van Gogh’s futile appeal as he lay shot and bleeding… Bouyeri didn’t want to talk. Talking was what the inveterate provocateur and polemicist van Gogh did. It was Bouyeri’s mission to stop the talking by cutting van Gogh’s throat right down to the spinal column. And that’s what he did, coolly, deliberately, without a flicker of doubt or mercy. One witness said it was like watching a butcher slaughter an animal.”
In the mythology around van Gogh’s horrible death, his last words have an importance. To the Bouyeri fan club, the tale of the otherwise arrogant “Islamophobe”, whose stock-in-trade was giving offence, pleading for his own life is pleasing. It makes retribution grand. To the children of the Enlightenment, van Gogh’s furtive plea to talk things over epitomizes the difference between a civilized Us and a barbaric Them.
To characterize van Gogh as just another Muslim-hater is unduly simplistic. The man hated all religions. He was just as scathing in his acerbic and merciless denunciations of the Christian faith as he was of Islam. Like many of those who were subsequently dubbed Enlightenment fundamentalists, van Gogh didn’t believe in restraint. He chose to see himself as the proverbial “village idiot”, a status that conferred on him the licence to be absolutely outrageous. To offend was his birthright and he claimed it with gusto. He was an extreme crusader against all forms of correctness; this included calling his publication The Healthy Smoker. To him, sacred and sacrilege were synonymous. For example, he resurrected an obscure sermon to paint Ayatollah Khomeini as an advocate of bestiality — and he did it without any pretence of subtlety.
What made van Gogh the target of Bouyeri’s ire was his role in the film Submission, shown on Dutch TV. Conceived by the Somali-born feminist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it was an indictment of women’s oppression in east Africa. Hirsi Ali believed that the degradation of women in these societies stemmed from Islamic theology. The film superimposed verses from the Quran on images of naked women.
The results were, predictably, explosive. Theo van Gogh paid for it with his life; and Hirsi Ali was hounded out of Holland, lost her Dutch citizenship on a technicality and found refuge in a conservative American think-tank.
Despite bouts of secular over-zealousness, it is unlikely that the Scandinavian model of irreverence would have found takers in today’s India. There may be examples of uninhibited attacks in emails and blogsites but, as some like M.F. Husain and a handful of art students in Gujarat have discovered, caricatures of religious iconography can land their creators in cumbersome litigation.
The irony is that what van Gogh believed should constitute the living Enlightenment tradition was actually the norm in the 19th century. Some of the sermons of Christian missionaries and Arya Samaj preachers of the past would definitely have invited official retribution today. Can we honestly say that adherents of the Young Bengal movement, who threw pieces of beef at unsuspecting passers-by, wouldn’t have been roundly thrashed had they repeated their puerile delinquency in 21st century Calcutta'
It is revealing, for example, that despite all official fears, no one in India was reckless enough to reproduce the offending Danish cartoons. Such an act would have violated the lakshman rekha which governs the contemporary Indian approach to the ‘god’ question. Unlike what Alastair Campbell believed is politically prudent in Britain, Indian politicians do god a great deal but this departure from the secular norm is masked in a great deal of civility and mutual accommodation. Violations are the exceptions.
The European Enlightenment centred on a desire to weaken the stranglehold of organized religion. In India, the spurious constitutional commitment to promote a mysterious beast called the “scientific temper” coexists happily with the “secular” commitment to Sharia-based personal laws for Muslims. Not even the Marxist parties dare question this irrational consensus. Even the token disapproval of casteism that marked early post-Independence politics has given way to unrestrained celebrations of caste-based social organization.
India has turned economic determinism on its head. Far from the development of capitalism leading to the encroachment of a liberal (also read Western) social agenda into public discourse, Incredible India has turned self-censorship into common sense. The list of proscriptions and holy cows keeps getting longer with each passing election. Even academia is no longer spared from the scrutiny of the mob.
Maybe, Taslima Nasreen was blissfully unaware that the caveats on self-expression exist in India just as they do across the border. Alternatively, like Hirsi Ali, she wanted to push the envelope slightly further and make Islamic certitudes a matter of free comment. The Muslim clergy can stomach assaults from those who are outside the faith but it has shown absolutely no generosity to sceptical noises that come from within. Had Salman Rushdie been non-Muslim, The Satanic Verses may have got off with a far lighter sentence. Likewise, Taslima’s problem is that she is an unorthodox Muslim woman who has become a celebrity. The assault on her mere existence is certain to be unrelenting because it is also intended as a deterrent to those Muslims who disavow Islamic certitudes.
The choices for any government are daunting. Ideally, both the Centre and state governments want her to disappear into exile in Scandinavia. She is insistent on being allowed to stay in Calcutta. The government doesn’t want to ignominiously deport her when her visa expires because of the likely Hindu fallout. But if she stays, there will be a Muslim backlash and, who knows, some crazy jihadi may be tempted to take some obscure fatwa at face value. There are suggestions that a judicially-decreed deportation may be organized to help the government out of the mess.
Taslima has set the cat among the pigeons. She has forced India to confront its own sanctimonious hypocrisy. She was the handle a beleaguered liberal tradition needed to test the waters of liberty.