The Assassination of Theo van Gogh: From Social Drama to Cultural Trauma

The Assassination of Theo van Gogh: From Social Drama to Cultural Trauma

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822391449
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/07/2008
Series: Politics, History, and Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 383 KB

About the Author

Ron Eyerman is Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. He is the author of Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity and Between Culture and Politics: Intellectuals in Modern Society; a co-author of Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century; and a co-editor of Myth, Meaning, and Performance: Toward a New Cultural Sociology of the Arts.

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From Social Drama to Cultural Trauma
By Ron Eyerman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4387-5

Chapter One


Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.-Theodor Adorno

Three positive things one can say about Amsterdam: you can buy anything you want; you are free; you are safe.-René Descartes

On November 2, 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed while cycling to work in the morning rush hour on a busy street in the heart of Amsterdam. The murderer, who also arrived on bicycle, first shot his victim, then slit his throat, and finally, with a separate knife, pinned a five-page note to his body. Written in Dutch verse, the note contained an indictment of Western society and was addressed not to van Gogh but to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee and member of the Dutch parliament, and other well-known politicians. In addition to being an outspoken proponent of Muslim women's rights, Hirsi Ali had written the screenplay for a short film, Submission Part One, directed by van Gogh.

A work of fiction, the film had been recently shown on Dutch public television and depicted the bruised bodies of young women with text from the Koran written on their semi-naked bodies. The film aroused great public debate and the already controversial Hirsi Ali was forced into hiding and twenty-four hour police protection. Despite receiving the same threats, Van Gogh continued his very public life and became the victim of this well-publicized crime. The murder set off a series of reactions, including arson against Muslim schools and mosques. The murderer was almost immediately identified as Mohammed Bouyeri, a citizen of the Netherlands, but with roots (and citizenship) in Morocco. Bouyeri was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment under the new anti-terrorism law. A second trial, which concerned the alleged involvement of co-conspirators, members of a so-called "Hofstad group" (Court or Capital City group), was carried out, resulting in the "group" being officially labeled a terrorist organization; some of its alleged members were later sentenced to prison. Strong doubts remain, however, about both the status of the group and any conspiracy in the murder of van Gogh. Named as one of its leaders, Mohammed B. spoke for over an hour during the second trial, using the occasion to discourse on his personal mission and the role of jihad or sacred struggle in Islam. This was in sharp contrast to his behavior at the first trial, when, except for saying a few words, he chose to remain silent.

The media coverage of the murder and its follow-up has been worldwide and extensive. Following approximately two and a half years after the murder of Pim Fortuyn (May 2002), a leading politician with outspoken ideas on immigration policies, many local commentators saw the murder of Theo van Gogh as part of a clash of civilizations and forecast a turning point of historical proportion in Dutch society. The international media also followed the story closely. In the United States for example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the subject of extensive coverage, including an article in the New York Times Magazine that featured a full-page color photo and the headline "Daughter of the Enlightenment." Interviewed on the CBS television news magazine 60 Minutes soon after the murder (where the program host introduced her as a "star"), Hirsi Ali insisted she had no regrets and claimed to be making a sequel to the film, something she repeated in a follow-up broadcast on July 10, 2005. Hirsi Ali has since moved to the United States and become an international celebrity. Also interviewed on 60 Minutes was Theodor Holman, identified as a columnist and radio commentator and "one of van Gogh's closest friends." Explaining why the Netherlands was shocked by van Gogh's death, even if he was a controversial figure, Holman said, "The country did love him.... He had his own television show, he had a radio show, he made movies. So he embodied what you can do in this country and what you can say" (60 Minutes transcript, p. 3). In addition to van Gogh and Hirsi Ali, Mohammed Bouyeri, his life, and his possible motivations have also been the subject of great media scrutiny. President George W. Bush referred to Bouyeri in a speech given just after the latter's trial: "In a courtroom in the Netherlands, the killer of Theo van Gogh turned to the victim's grieving mother and said, 'I do not feel your pain-because I believe you are an infidel.'" Clearly the death of a Dutch filmmaker is of more than just local interest.

An analysis of the murder of Theo van Gogh has several perspectives and frameworks to draw upon. The selection of one analytic frame or another is neither innocent nor obvious. In fact, the framework through which one chooses to respond to the question "what really happened here?" goes some way to providing its own answer. One can fruitfully look at this occurrence as a "hate crime," which as defined by Kelly and Maghan (1998:222), would mean viewing it as a criminal act that also possesses "dynamic racial, political, ideological and cultural dimensions that magnify their impact on victims and on the communities in which they occur." From this perspective one could study aspects of this "dynamic," such as the role of "media performance" (Cottle 2004), which would highlight processes of media construction. However, calling the murder of van Gogh a "hate crime" (was the murder of a native Dutchman "racist"?) is already to categorize and thus to prescribe interpretation. Another alternative is to analyze the murder and the associated reportage as a "moral panic," which would call attention to another aspect of the media's role in dramatizing the occurrence and in prescribing its effects. The German translation of the Dutch historian Geert Mak's (2005c) account of the murder carries the subtitle "history of a moral panic" (though the author himself claims no responsibility for that choice). Framing the murder as a moral panic means highlighting a form of public hysteria induced through media orchestration. In his rich account, Mak focuses on the lack of what he considers a proper response from Dutch leaders and opinion makers and what this might mean for Dutch society. His own position comes out clearly: we have been through this before. If Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have been incorporated into Dutch society, why can't Muslims be as well? From another point of view, one could call the murder an "assassination," which would imply a political motivation. This might also be fruitful, but it would push the investigation primarily to the assassin, to the person and the structural conditions that might drive or motivate him or her (see Wilkenson's [1976] analysis of assassinations according to a theory of status inconsistency). Finally, one might apply the notion of "artistic transgression" as Julius (2002) does; this turns the question into a moral and legal dispute suggesting historical and cultural comparisons, where the notions of blasphemy and artistic license come under scrutiny.

In my own approach to the murder of Theo van Gogh I will make use of aspects from these various perspectives. Over the following chapters I will apply three types of analysis, geared to three levels of approach. I begin with a performative approach that focuses on the prediscursive performance of action (Alexander et al. 2006). Issues of concern here are who was killed and why, how it was carried out, and what it meant to actors and audience. Second, use is made of discourse theory in analyzing how these actions were transformed into an event as they were represented and reconstructed through mass media reports and other accounts. Here the concern is also who was killed and why, but with a focus on media representation and framing. Third, the theories of social drama and cultural trauma are applied as means to understanding the social processes triggered by the murder and as means toward assessing its long-term effects. Issues here concern the meaning and changing nature of social inclusion, the boundaries of "Dutchness," of Dutch "multiculturalism" and the very nature of Dutch collective identity.


The stage for the murder of Theo van Gogh had already been set by preceding events. Let me mention some of the most significant: the arrival of waves of immigrants from former Dutch colonies from the 1950s onward, the emergence of Amsterdam as a magnet for a "counterculture" in the 1960s, and the importation of "guest workers," largely from Turkey and Morocco, in the 1970s. In October 2003, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) would report that there were "nearly as many Muslims as Calvinists in the Netherlands" (web magazine and that the number of Muslims in the country was increasing dramatically, to nearly 6 percent of the total population. According to a member of the Dutch parliament at the time (someone of Moroccan heritage), "Muslims are expected to outnumber non-Muslims in Europe by 2050," and in some European cities, "Muslim school children will be in the majority within the next decade" (Cherribi 2003:195). There were also media-circulated reports that Mohammed had become the most popular name for newborn boys. More directly connected to our purpose was the publication in a leading newspaper of an essay titled "Het multiculturele drama" (The multicultural drama) by the sociologist and political commentator Paul Scheffer. This article, which appeared in January 2000, castigated the lack of public discussion of immigration policy and, more significantly, the apparent lack of any such policy at all. This set in motion widespread debate about the alleged "failure of Dutch immigration," especially as it concerned the assimilation of Muslims. Aspects of this discussion were transformed into a political platform by Pim Fortuyn, a sociology professor turned social critic and populist politician, whose enormous success effectively ended with his assassination just prior to what was expected to be a triumphal national election in 2002. In between came the September 11 terrorist attacks on targets in the United States, which helped catapult Fortuyn to prominence. When the murder of Fortuyn first occurred it was widely assumed that the assassin was an Islamic militant, a fear shared by Hirsi Ali (2007) that turned out to be false. The killer was announced as Volkert van der Graaf, an animal rights activist, who, at his trial, would claim to have acted on behalf of Muslim immigrants. It was in this tense context that Theo van Gogh used his public presence to make vulgar remarks about Muslims and Jews, that Hirsi Ali drove her campaign for the rights of Muslim women as a member of parliament and media figure, and that their film Submission was broadcast.

The actual murder has been well documented and my recounting builds on Benschop (2005) and Chorous and Olgun (2005) (see also Buruma 2006b). Both assassin and victim were cycling when Mohammed B. began shooting. The latter fired several times, severely wounding his victim. The final shots were fired as van Gogh was being chased (twice) around a parked car, while shouting, "We can still talk about this, don't do it," something that Hirsi Ali (2007) calls typically Dutch. After van Gogh was dead, the assailant cut his throat with a small machete (attempting, perhaps, to decapitate his victim). This was something the assailant had apparently rehearsed on sheep in the hallway to his apartment. The killer then stuck a filet knife into his victim's body so deeply that it touched the spine. Attached through the knife (which perhaps was meant as a dagger) was a note that contained threatening references not to van Gogh but to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In his pocket Mohammed B. had another, more personal, note written to friends and colleagues, in which he declared his martyrdom. After kicking his victim to ensure he was dead, the assailant reloaded his weapon (a 15-shot semi-automatic pistol manufactured in Croatia) and walked calmly across the crowded street toward a nearby park. There were fifty-three eyewitnesses, including one who supplied the media photos that were taken through his cell phone camera. One of the onlookers is reported to have said to Mohammed B. "You can't do that," to which the latter replied, "Oh yes, I can, he asked for it, and now you know what to expect." When the police arrived, the assailant fired off twelve more shots in their direction, wounding a motorcycle policeman. Wounded in the leg by a police bullet, Mohammed B. was finally arrested. In the ambulance, an accompanying police officer told him that he was lucky not to have been killed, to which Mohammed B. replied, "That was precisely my intention." At his trial he would repeat these sentiments, telling the wounded policeman to his face that he had intended to shoot to kill and to be killed himself.

Hirsi Ali and not Theo van Gogh may well have been the prime target for assassination, something we will directly address. The note pinned to van Gogh's body (available on Afscheidsbrief.jpg), was addressed to "Mrs. Hirshi Ali" (the name was misspelled throughout), calling her an "infidel fundamentalist" who "terrorizes Islam" and "marches with the soldiers of evil." It labeled Hirsi Ali an "unbelieving fundamentalist" and a heretic in the service of lying "Jewish masters," "products of the Talmud" who "dominate Dutch politics" (according to the translation by Ian Buruma [2005]). The note also contained the phrase "I know for sure that you, O America, are going to meet with disaster. I know for sure that you, O Holland, are going to meet with disaster" and is signed Saifu Deen al-Muwahhied. According to official accounts this letter was most likely written by someone other than Mohammed B., though this is a name he allegedly used on the Internet. The style of address appears to reflect its author's desire to link urban street rhetoric with poetic prophecy from an imagined past and could very well have been written by Mohammed B.

On Mohammed B.'s person, the police recovered the following suicide note:

BAPTIZED IN BLOOD So these are my last words ... Riddled with bullets ... Baptized in blood ... As I had hoped.

I am leaving a message ... For you ... the fighter ... The Tawheed tree is waiting ...

Yearning for your blood ... Enter the bargain ... And Allah opens the way ... He gives you a garden ... Instead of the Earthy rubble.

To the enemy I say ... You will surely die ... Wherever in the world you go ... Death is waiting for you ... Chased by the knights of DEATH ... Who paint the streets with Red.

For the hypocrites I have one final word ... Wish for death or hold your tongue ... and sit.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, my end is nigh ... But this does not end the story.

The killing appears staged as ritual assassination, though I would rather see it as a social performance. The killer prepared himself for assassination and martyrdom, yet the fact that he felt it necessary to carry textual messages reveals that he felt the acts did not speak for themselves. Although he was born and raised in Amsterdam, Mohammed B. chose to die as a martyr to Islam and, to judge by the written texts and the mode of killing, to link himself and his act to a tradition where murder was a sacred duty and where even a kitchen knife could pass for a dagger, the only permissible weapon of ritual assassination (Buruma and Margalit 2004:69). The shots may have been necessary on city streets, but the real killing was done in a prescribed way.


Excerpted from THE ASSASSINATION OF THEO VAN GOGH by Ron Eyerman Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1. Assassination as Public Performance: The Murder of Theo van Gogh 1

2. Mediating Social Drama 24

3. Perpetrators and Victims 56

4. The Clash of Civilizations: A Multicultural Drama 102

5. A Dutch Dilemma: Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Multicultural Tolerance 141

6. Cultural Trauma and Social Drama 161

Notes 175

Bibliography 203

Index 215

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