In recent weeks, the London courts have tried protesters for their cause in the disruption and violence on the streets of London after the Danish cartoon controversy. Their charges are varied but have included the soliciting of murder of American and Danish nationals. With these trials underway, but with some hindsight on the events that followed the publication of the Prophet cartoons, it seems important to show that the message is still not getting through.
A recent controversy that pitted the rule of free expression against Islam has been a noticeable one in the media. Almost overnight, it demanded that all newspaper owners within the West decide upon an honest institutional policy for deciding cases of free expression in relation to Islam. In late 2005, the Danish newspaper, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad not only as human and pictorial but as a debauched charlatan. The cartoons were republished across a variety of mainstream European newspapers (and even a publication in Jordan). The caricatures of the prophet Muhammad were not republished in any of the mainstream British newspapers. The caricatures of the prophet caused significant offence to Muslims across the world; embassies have been set alight and the death threats have been issued.
Across Europe, there has often been a popular urge for governmental policy to play to religious belief and sensitivities and therein, tighten national security. In doing so, it withdraws some of our most basic personal freedoms, such as the freedom which allows the individual to express herself. In Denmark, as in the rest of Europe, the case should remain clear: it is essential to defend literary and artistic free expression as an inherent symptom of our basic liberal architecture which upholds such freedom.
However, recall the murder of Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam, over a year ago. Reconsider this case carefully since it offers a modern and tragic example on why it remains necessary to defend the liberal architecture of modern European society, regardless of Muslim or other religious threats (whether they be global or parochial). This horrific case, in which an artist’s freedom of expression threatened the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, is one of the most transparent testaments we have on why artistic expression must not be impinged upon. In this case, an Islamic militant slay an artist, simply because he perceived the content of the art to offend his religion. Van Gogh paid the highest price for his liberty: death. His unrepentant killer has now been brought to justice.
The Theo van Gogh controversy
In early November 2002, the Dutch film director, Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered by a Muslim immigrant on the streets of Amsterdam following his critical portrayal of Islam in the film, Submission. The ten-minute film had been aired on national television just months before the killing. It had openly criticised the treatment of women under Islam. It achieved this by showing four Muslim women with texts of the Qur’an written on their bodies, along with whip marks, and a series of markings illustrating the physical punishments suffered by Muslim women as warranted by the Qur’an. In addition, he had persistently referred to Muslims in his earlier written commentary as geitenneukers (goat-fuckers).
The insults of Muslims, through van Gogh’s varied works, were numerous and unrepentant in their portryal. It seems extremely fundamental to ask why Islam so radically opposed van Gogh’s film-directing and writing on Muslims, and how the author’s words offered such an offensive insult to Islam. The importance of this question is such that it allows us to consider the essential requirements of interference that Islam imposes upon individuals who seek to express themselves on issues relating to Muslims and Islam.
What makes this a case for religious intolerance is not simply those views on religion originally expressed views by van Gogh – who deliberately sought to cause offence and not express himself per se – but the revenge sought by his killer, Mohammed Bouyeri. It was clear that the killing was overtly sanctioned by religious belief. A letter, pinned to the chest of van Gogh by a knife, refers to the threat he had posed to the Islamic faith and that his murder was to be a deterrent to other Dutch figures (both political and non-partisan). In addition, a poem found on Van Gogh’s killer clearly expressed his wish to die as a martyr of the Islamic faith. Van Gogh himself was a figure well-noted for his “outspoken opinions”, defended under the banner of the freedom of expression. The Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende – along with many other commentators – remembered him as such in a speech given shortly after his death.
It might be noted that Dutch politics had already begun to bring the debate of tolerance and free expression versus Islamic immigration, into “public consciousness.” Within the mainstream Dutch political agenda, the main concern was of Muslim immigrants being unable to assimilate into Dutch society. There were uncountable news reports after a prominent right-wing politician, Pim Fortuyn, had been shot dead shortly after expressing his views and campaigning for voting policies on anti-immigration during 2002. In this case, it later turned out that he had been killed by a completely psychotic environmental vegan hippy (of course, the British have a fair share of those too).
An even stronger political complication for van Gogh’s case is that a Somali-born Dutch MP, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with outspoken views on Islamic customs, had also been responsible for the co-writing of the film Submission. Her life has been threatened by radical Dutch Muslims. As if signing her own death warrant, Hirsi Ali currently plans the sequel to the film.
Why free expression?
In my view, the most convincing defence of free expression in relation to religious diversity, within modern European literature, is that offered by a British philosopher, John Stuart Mill. In 1859, Mill stated in On Liberty that the most fundamental principle of a freely operating liberal society is the independent right to the “freedom of opinion”. The only exceptions are that this freedom must be limited when “significant” harms were imposed upon another individual – though, Mill knew well that this was a rare thing. The intervention in a literary controversy is no longer an option for a modern European government.
In the Van Gogh controversy, the right to the author’s freedom of expression was suppressed by one individual Muslim through a most radical form: brutality and murder. The alleged right to kill the film-director was based upon the offensiveness of van Gogh’s depictions of women caused to Islam and Muslims in general, through both written and film media. The murder of van Gogh represents a sort of intolerance which is new to a society – not simply “because the Dutch are a tolerant nation and they have a long history of tolerance” – but simply because execution is the most extreme reaction possible in suppressing the freedom of expression on matters pertaining to the Islamic faith. Unlike Britain’s own Salman Rushdie, or more recently, France’s Michel Houellebecq, no recourse to the law was made in this situation.
Unlike other contemporary cases of freely expressive artists and novelists – whether that be Rushdie in Britain, Fallaci in Italy or Houellebecq in France – there was no court trial for Theo van Gogh. He was stabbed and shot to death by an Islamic fundamentalist hoping to die a martyr on the streets of Amsterdam. For Muslims, it was thought to be van Gogh’s ten-minute film, Submission that brought about this consequence, in addition to some relatively anti-Islamic comments made in his regular newspaper column. Both the television station that showed van Gogh’s film and the news publication for which he produced a column existed within the realm of nationally accepted media channels.
Dutch society is openly tolerant of free expression in relation to religious matters, and its acceptance of van Gogh’s criticisms and outbursts had not created any “new” sort of controversy. The history of tolerance in the Netherlands, said to be entrenched within the Dutch Golden Age, tells us of a long history of toleration towards religious issues. One could quite easily claim that the freedom of expression on matters pertaining to religion, in Holland, extends back to the Dutch Golden Age.
If one looks back at the history of the Netherlands, not as a dreamy nostalgic paradise of Eden, but as a social compact in which the United Provinces of the Netherlands began to take an active step towards religious toleration, one can start to appreciate that Dutch society has enjoyed a peculiar and isolated acceptance of personal free expression in relation to religious matters.
Following the Union of Utrecht in 1579, the United Provinces of Netherlands guaranteed the freedom of conscience, a principle by which nobody could be persecuted for reasons of religion. That is to say, the Dutch Republic and its citizens – whether Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites or Jews – could not meddle with individual free expression in relation to religious matters. It was difficult to maintain in practice, since the majoritarian religion of the Calvinist Church opposed the survival of Catholicism. Anti-Catholic legislation could be, rather paradoxically, held in tandem with Calvinist laws on toleration in the Dutch Republic of the Golden Age. However, in comparison with the state suppression of English Catholics, French Protestants and Spanish Jews, within their respective confessional cultures of the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was quite clearly the more multi-confessional and tolerant of its European counterparts. A tolerant multi-confessional state was formed on the religious grounds of the majority, i.e. Calvinism, which simply allowed religious communities to develop by not interfering with or suppressing their physical existence. That is to say, it was held in principle that harm would not be done to individuals existing within a culture which enabled a diversity of religious beliefs.
It is for this reason that free expression on matters pertaining to Islam in the Netherlands will, and ought to, prevail. As with the Rushdie affair, it is important to maintain that the harm done by the case of blasphemous free expression did not warrant interference, since as John Stuart Mill argued, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” No significant harm to others was perpetrated by van Gogh or anyone associated with him. Again, to the contrary, the only true physical threat and source of intolerance that eventually lead to his death, was the Islamic fundamentalist creed supported by a number of Dutch Muslims, including his killer, Mohammed Bouyeri. Van Gogh’s film, as with Michel Houellebecq’s novels in France, objecting to the treatment of women under Islamic culture did not recognizably pose a significant physical harm.
No significant or physical harm was posed by the film-director, the potential for free and negative discussion was not removed and it did not challenge the diversity of groups – ‘it did not stop Muslims doing what they do.’ More importantly, it is not assumed by all people that ‘what Muslims do’ in the cultural sphere resembles anything like the picture van Gogh attempted to depict of Muslims in relation to women. His view was one among many. All the major legal obstacles that might prevent the freedom of expression are not only redundant pieces of legislation but also troubled laws in urgent need of abandonment.
If the Europeans turn their backs on basic personal freedoms for the religious concerns of a few, then we have clearly gone several hundred years back in history.
James P. McConalogue is an editor living and working in Oxford. His recent publications, including fiction and political essays, can be found in: Terra Incognita (2003), Aesthetica, Projected Letters, Poetry Salzburg Review, Antigone: A Theban Tragedy in Four Movements published in an anthology by Georges Szirtes, and more recently an essay ‘On Literary Liberty: Remembering Rushdie and the case for the freedom of expression’, in Projected Letters. For further details, click here.