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Theo van Gogh: Words and Reform

Rino Breebaart

Muslim women, the very subject of the film that resulted in van Gogh's murder, may ultimately be the force that invoke proactive change within Islam.

I want to get right to the facts on this one. The filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed repeatedly in Amsterdam on the 2nd of November 2004 by a practicing Dutch Muslim of migrant heritage. Van Gogh was a popular and controversial figure long known and tolerated in Holland for his in-your-face provocation and baiting of established norms, especially religious norms. He was killed in direct response to a short film he'd made criticising the standing of women in Islam, called Submission, and his killer, identified only as Mohammed B. by the Dutch authorities, used a knife to fix a ranting and threatening tract to his chest. It was a rather brutal murder; the killer even tried to behead the corpse. Several reprisal (or rather, knee-jerk) attacks broke out around Holland against Islamic schools in the days after, but thankfully there were no further fatalities. The steno headlines gushed in from the former calm: "Islamists threaten to retaliate... Madness in Holland... Revenge bomb attacks."

The film in question, Submission (viewable online at addresses a systemic pattern of masculine/paternal authority as seemingly sanctioned by the Koran, through a monologue by a young woman driven to despair by abuse. In its rather short run of 11 minutes, it covers arranged marriage, marital and familial mistreatment, infidelity, covering up with the veil as well as covering the bruises of abuse. A narrative about the shame of submission and disappointed devotion, it's all bracketed within a prayer to Allah. Though there's a suggestion of nudity with thin veils and Koranic texts written on the actress' body, the film almost reads like a grad student's PhD submission in its discretion and mild metaphor; it doesn't go for guns-blazing criticism or deliberate hyperbole. Scripted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Somalian refugee and now a Dutch parliamentarian, the film's strongest import is to imply a need for reform and discussion within Islam, especially addressing the women of Islam. It's stylised enough for broadcast television; it is nowhere near as explicitly infiltrating or questioning of Islam as The Satanic Verses was, for instance.

Beside the attempt at desperate symbolism with the attempted beheading of the filmmaker, it's fair to say that words play a superficial and also a symbolic role in this religiously and politically motivated murder. Politics and religion are becoming ever more entwined and weighted with power these days. I'm thinking of the victory for the broad religious Right in America's last Presidential election and the outlawing of headscarves in French schools. The murder of van Gogh points to the dangers faced by writers and reformers whose subject is Islam. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie comes to mind as a politically motivated act of extremism, but between Rushdie and van Gogh there is already a huge difference in the state of politics in the world. Extremists who illegitimately consider themselves the spokesmen of Islam are now seemingly ready to execute harshly symbolic acts, irrespective of how damaging those acts are for Islam. These acts and their words, which have little to do with the spirit and principles of Islam.

The danger in criticising any religion lay in antagonising particular views and interpretations, particularly the misguided views of radical camps and extremists. The offensiveness read into Submission, the raison d'ĂȘtre of the killing, one could argue, lies not only in its brush of nudity and unveiled, pro-women criticism of certain Islamic traditions, but also in its use of Arabic texts painted onto the actresses' body. Imagine an Arab director painting the Ten Commandments on a naked woman and filming her suggestively for a story set in Mississippi. Comparably to Submission, such a film would convey an extreme inability, on the filmmaker's part, to perceive the full religious and cultural context of his story, and the impact that story may have. That kind of symbolism and use of words is easily usurped by extremists.

But strangely, the reactionary rant affixed to the corpse of van Gogh by Mohammed B doesn't reply in kind about the state of women under certain traditions. The text addresses itself instead exclusively and vengefully to Ayaan Hirsi Ali; as a former Muslim, as a woman escaping arranged marriage and as a politician in the Dutch parliament. The tract betrays a virulent anti-Semitism, a specious rhetoric and sanctimonious threats in its response: a quick steno transliteration from the Dutch: "You are an enemy of Islam... The Dutch parliament is dominated by Jews... You will destroy yourself upon Islam... I am certain that you, unbelieving fundamentalist, will go down...' etc.

Mohammed B's screed brazenly reveals how misguided extremism becomes. The stronger its violence and recklessness, the more circumscribed and aggressive the language and devotion required to participate in it. This case exemplifies the blind desperation of a fundamentalist unhinged from his religion. The sad fact is that push for reform that van Gogh's film calls for (even the idea of reform within religion, or rather, of certain traditions under the blanket of religion) and religiously-inspired extremism are two tendencies that push apart any peaceful middle ground, the middle ground that intelligent and balanced art and fiction can tread so well (if provocatively), and which extremism exploits to the violent hilt. The frame and range of debate proffered is usurped for symbolic political gain. This is a rather worrisome trend in our world .

Reform of religious tradition is always a difficult and slow issue, but as such highlights the importance and value of the hard questions raised in the process, and hence the value of the writers who dare to raise them. Especially in the new political-religious climate we live in today.

Note: a breath of inspiration goes to the brave reform-writer Irshad Manji at Manji is an activist working at reform from within Islam. She is the fulfilment of Salman Rushdie's opinion (and by association, that of van Gogh's film) that it is Muslim women who will affect change most strongly.

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