Column: The Dutch Islam debate since Theo van Gogh

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On an autumn day in 2004, an event occurred on an Amsterdam street corner that came to symbolise a clash between two ideologies. An artist, the ultimate symbol of the Western concept of freedom of expression, was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist, a believer in the absolute and singular truth of Allah.

Film maker Theo van Gogh had insulted the prophet and called Muslims ‘goat-shaggers’. But it was generally assumed that he was murdered for his co-operation with Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali in making her film Submission, in which Koran verses were projected on naked and tortured female bodies. 
After the murder, an emotional debate about Islam and the freedom of expression erupted in the Netherlands. A series of incidents kept this debate alive over the years: the international row about the Danish Mohammed cartoons and in the Netherlands the statements of the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders who called the Koran a fascist book and the prophet Mohammed a barbarian warlord.

Healthy debate
On the one hand there are the critics of Islam and militant defenders of the freedom of expression. They feel that their democratic freedom is threatened by invading hordes of Muslim migrants. The freedom of expression, they claim, is absolute and also includes the right to insult. Look at the Dutch writer Gerard Reve, they say, who caused a row in the 1960s by claiming that he had met God in the shape of a grey donkey. That’s how we deal with religion in the Netherlands! Muslims better get used to it and stop being so over-sensitive. It is healthy to fiercely debate Islam and tell each other the truth.

On the other hand there are those who say: If you talk to Muslims that way, you’ll only alienate them. The Islam critics, however, are allergic to such objections. “Our freedom of expression is being limited!”, they cry. But is that really the case? Slander and sowing hatred is prohibited by law; but within those boundaries no one denies them the right to insult. The issue is not a legal but a moral one. The question is not whether it is allowed, but whether it is a good idea to insult Muslims. Whether this is the way we want to debate with each other in public.

Living in the 60s

People who want to stir up a debate with Muslims by insulting them are still living in the 1960s and refuse to see that immigration has profoundly changed Dutch society. We now live in a multicultural country of people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds and different norms and values. In such a situation diplomacy should rule, instead of the idea that differences should be settled by insulting one another. Doing that only causes deep injuries that may take generations to heal.  
It is therefore no surprise that the ‘fierce debate’ the Islam critics long for has not come off the ground. The Dutch ‘Islam debate’ is a debate between indigenous Dutch in which Muslims hardly participate. The fierce criticism of Islam does not tempt them to respond. On the contrary, the majority withdraws thinking: “They don’t want us”.


A small but growing group of Dutch Muslim youths opt for the fundamentalist ‘Salafist’ Islam that turns its back on Western society. Some of them even radicalise in the direction of violent interpretations. Research demonstrates that this development is causally related to the sharpening of the Islam debate in the Netherlands. That is something we also could have figured out without research: radicalisation on the one side leads to radicalisation on the other.

The heat has diminished a bit, but the Dutch debate about Islam and the freedom of expression has not progressed very much since Theo van Gogh was murdered. The indigenous Dutch continue quarrelling over the question of how they should deal with Muslim immigrants, while the immigrants themselves withdraw. If there is hope, it lies with the younger generations who take multicultural society for granted and do not long to return to the homogenous society of the 1950s and ‘60s. Perhaps – hopefully – they will deal with each other more openly. But they will be burdened with the heritage of the Wilders era.

Photo: Theo van Gogh - ANP