On Van Gogh's murder

I haven't commented on the murder of Theo Van Gogh in Holland last month, partly because I thought the incident was blown out of proportion by many on the blogosphere and elsewhere, particularly on the right but also on the left. I also did not feel that sorry for Van Gogh, who was after all a racist, and did not think he deserved the martyr status that many have now bestowed upon him. It's rather strange that Americans, who live in a country with one of the world's highest rates of homicides (and inter-racial gang violence), are so passionate about this one. Obviously he did not deserve to die and I am horrified at the religious fundamentalist motives that seem to have driven his murderer. But let's keep things in perspective here.

One person who did just that this week in Salama Ahmed Salama, an Al Ahram columnist. I don't particularly agree with Salama generally, but he hit the nail in a recent piece translated and published by the Al Ahram Weekly:

Antagonistic approaches to religion are not helpful to women, either inside or outside Europe. And Van Gogh was an extremely controversial figure, a member of an extreme rightwing party that Muslims see as a threat to Dutch society, a party that calls Muslims a fifth column of "sheep-buggers". Since the murder mosques and Muslim schools have been attacked in the Netherlands while the Dutch government has cracked down on those it calls a terrorist threat, closing down meeting places and deporting many. [sic]


It may well be the right of the Dutch director to express his opinion. But incitement to hatred can easily backfire, particularly when xenophobia is the order of the day. Most European governments have done little to help minorities fit in. Discrimination is common when ethnic minorities seek jobs, housing, schooling and other social services. As a result entire districts have been turned into Muslim ghettos, into breeding places for extremism.


Immigrants went to Europe as cheap labour. There are 15 million immigrants in Europe, including five million in France, three million in Germany and one million in the Netherlands. These minorities needed help from the state, which they did not receive. More than three decades have passed since the first wave of immigration began during which the governments concerned did little to help the immigrants integrate. And now a number of emerging rightwing parties want the immigrants thrown out.
The immigrants are not entirely blameless. They should have done more to integrate. But the governments' fault is worse, for it is the responsibility of the state to promote cultural and social harmony.
With Islamophobia on the rise Europe wants Islam to adapt to European values, rather than for Muslims to fit in. Recent statements made by a Belgian archbishop are a case in point. No one is calling on the Jews to alter their religion. No one wants Christians of various denominations to change their beliefs. But Muslims are asked to rethink their tenets. A European, or American, Islam is the solution, we are told. And several Arab intellectuals and writers seem to agree.


So Van Gogh, who's become something to a hero in the West, was a racist. People are comparing him to Salman Rushdie, a great author whose critique of his own religion is much more subtle than Van Gogh's shock-flicks. To me it seems he hardly deserves our compassion. He didn't deserve to die, and if he hadn't he would have remained a marginal filmmaker with a following among Dutch racists if some Moroccan idiot hadn't decided to kill him. Instead, because of his act of insanity, his name is a rallying cry for racism. I can understand European intellectuals being worried about the rise of Islamist extremism among Arab immigrants -- so am I -- but Arab intellectuals, as Salama points out, don't need to go about taking every opportunity to talk about a crisis in Islam or some other vague conceit every time a hate crime takes place. There are enough real problems about.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.