While watching various factions in the United States battle it out over the meaning of the placement of an Islamic center in Manhattan and politicians milk the issue for their own benefit, I am reminded of an incident that took place in the Netherlands earlier in the decade. The battles surrounding the making of a film anti-Muslim activist Hirsi Ali and Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh that was considered slanderous and sacrilegious by many Muslims provide an interesting backdrop to the current quarrels in the US. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is what happened. Van Gogh, whose politics were marked by his support for the rightwing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn and his anti-Muslim newspaper columns, joined with Ali to make a film critical of Islam’s attitudes toward women.
In 2004, the film featuring Ali appeared on Dutch television. Some Muslim groups and individuals considered the film sacrilegious because it superimposed quotations from Islamic sacred texts that van Gogh and Ali considered critical of women onto the bodies of women praying. Ali, a former Muslim fundamentalist born and raised among the Somali middle class, had turned against Islam after immigrating to the Netherlands. She became a member of the Dutch parliament in 2003, but questions surrounding her citizenship forced her to step down.
This also began her political shift to the right. She has since made a name for herself as an author and darling of some western feminists and rightwing political forces. Not long after the film aired, van Gogh was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a first-generation Dutchman of Moroccan descent and a Muslim.
Ron Eyerman’s 2009 work, The Assassination of Theo van Gogh, examines this 2004 murder by Bouyeri. Eyerman uses a variety of sociological lenses in his study. Foremost among these lenses is the perception presented by Eyerman that the act itself was a piece of performance art. In other words, the murder itself was secondary to the reaction of the audience and the role of the killer. Identifying the murder as performance art is a novel yet plausible idea, especially in today’s world of media saturation and the subjective presentation of events as objective news. Eyerman understands this and lays out his criteria quite carefully. Presenting three types of analysis/critique, he provides the reader with a provocative inquiry into the possible meanings of van Gogh’s murder and the events leading up to it. Essentially forsaking the idea that there can be a meaningful objective interpretation of these actions, Eyerman looks for the nature of the subjective interpretations that evolved. During his investigation, questions arise regarding the role of mass media in the act’s presentation and interpretation, the nature of the different audiences and their stake in the nature and meaning of the presentation. In addition, writes Eyerman, the possible public and personal meanings of the actions, the people involved and the role their various narratives also come into play in any interpretation.
The result is an intellectual journey through the postwar psyche of the Netherlands–a psyche greatly influenced by contrasting stories regarding the non-Jewish citizenry’s attitude and actions around the Nazi occupation and that regime’s subsequent removal and extinction of the country’s Jewish population. It is Eyerman’s contention that the conflicting narratives about this historical period–one narrative that claims the Dutch people acted heroically and another that claims the opposite–are essential to understanding the responses to the public acts of Dutch immigrant and legislator Hirsi Ali, the filmmaker Theodor van Gogh, and the murderer Mohammed Bouyeri. The possible influences of other postwar events in Dutch history are also discussed, especially the end of the Dutch Empire, the actions of Dutch soldiers in Indonesia during and after World War Two, and the assumption by the Dutch state of thousands of refugees from its former colonies. According to Eyerman, all of these circumstances combine to create a uniquely Dutch interpretation of the current experience of immigration and citizenship. At the same time, the examination of these questions provide the reader with a template that is quite useful in examining these same questions in regard to other societies.
The text is an insightful presentation of current cultural theories. With the van Gogh murder as his foci, Eyerman uses the incident to explore the meaning of various phenomenon including performance theory, social drama and cultural trauma. Within this examination, he examines the role mass media and historical interpretations intermingle and influence personal and societal interpretations of events such as assassinations and terrorist events. Not only does his explication look at the role these elements play in the public perception and reaction to such events, it also takes a look at possible meanings they might have for the individuals involved in light of their histories and reactions to modern events. Of course, this means that there are layers of meaning involved in Eyerman’s presentation; layers which both clarify and muddle the likelihood of a single interpretation–something which Eyerman is inclined to believe can not exist. Unfortunately, the result of this is that the opinion with the loudest presentation usually becomes the accepted truth.
Like most news events, the murder of Van Gogh was an event that achieved much of its importance because the media made it an event. In essence, it rephrases for a media-saturated society the question raised by Plato in his allegory of the caves. Is what we are seeing on television real or is it a shadow of reality? Furthermore, does its existence help form our reality and, if so, how? These questions apply equally to the current debate over the Manhattan Islamic center and the Koran burning that didn’t happen. Pastor Terry Jones understands this better than most of those who engaged in the charade he created.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org