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Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo van Gogh and the object that brought them together

Theo and the Goat-Fucker
Enlightenment’s Assassins

Mohammed Bouyeri is the Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent who assassinated Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, on an Amsterdam street on November 2, 2004. Van Gogh was on his bicycle. Bouyeri, 26 at the time, in a raincoat and prayer hat, calmly walked up to him on a rainy morning and shot him in the stomach. Van Gogh staggered away. Bouyeri followed and shot him several more times. “You can’t do that!,” a woman yelled. “Yes, I can,” Bouyeri replied while reloading his gun. It could have been a scene out of a van Gogh movie. Bouyeri took out a machete and cut van Gogh’s throat, then took out a piece of paper, wrote a note and stabbed it to van Gogh’s chest. Only then did police arrive on the scene and a shootout broke out. Bouyeri wanted to die right there but the police, not being the American sort, didn’t cooperate. They only shot him in the leg, arrested him, and put him through Holland’s court system. On July 12, 2005, the last day of Bouyeri’s trial, he made a speech in court. If there is such a thing as fanaticism without impurities — the black hole version of fanaticism, where no shred of light or reason can escape — this speech was it. But first, why did he target van Gogh of all people?

Van Gogh was one of Holland’s brashest celebrities. Take Chris Farley, Andrew Dice Clay and John Stuart Mill, run them through a meat grinder, and the resulting pinkish, fatty mush would be Theo van Gogh, at once one of Europe’s most original free-speech advocates and upenders of conventions as well as one of its vilest publicity seekers, humorists and equal-opportunity shockers. He had no use for religion, least of all for those reactionary religionists who’d use Dutch freedoms to undermine them, or prevent others from enjoying them.

He famously included a goat on the set of his television chat-show so Muslim guests, or “goat fuckers,” as he called Muslims, could have a go. He criticized Leon de Winter, the holocaust filmmaker and novelist, for profiting off the back of genocide and publicly announced that, as Ian Buruma describes it, “De Winter could only satisfy his wife by wrapping barbed wire around his penis and crying ‘ Auschwitz!’” And he called Jesus Christ “that rotten fish from Nazareth.” Luger, one of his twenty-three films, was famous for the scene of a man shooting off a gun into a woman’s vagina. I say this not to judge van Gogh and his work but, for the purposes of this brief piece, to sum it up factually for context. I don’t know his work well enough to judge it, but know it enough to know that he had every right to produce and peddle it, while no one had the right or any reason whatsoever to harm him, let alone kill him, over it.

Van Gogh’s most famous work, not by his design, was Submission, the 11-minute film written by Ayan Hirsi Ali, partly narrated by her and featuring women briefly and variously nude as verses from the Quran are projected on their bodies and they described the beatings, rapes and ostracism they’ve endured from their own families in Allah’s name, for doing nothing less innocent than having boyfriends. The film was shown on Dutch television in August 2004. When Mohammed Bouyeri murdered van Gogh 65 days later, the assumption was that Submission was the reason. Reason says it was. Bouyeri says it wasn’t:

The story that I felt insulted as a Moroccan, or because he called me a goat fucker, that is all nonsense. I acted out of faith. And I made it clear that if it had been my own father, or my little brother, I would have done the same thing. […] If I were ever released, I would do exactly the same, exactly the same.

Why? Because he was required to behead “all those who insult Allah and his prophet” by divine law. The circularity of this logic isn’t nearly as depraved as its implication: to verbally insult is worse than to murder. But then, this is the logic of honor killings. A woman needn’t even insult anyone. (Where’s the insult in taking a boyfriend, to whom?) She need only do something that, to her patriarchal clan, appears to be an insult—the kind of thing, of course, that the patriarchs indulge in freely and without consequences—to earn their wrath, up to and including being killed to “save” the family honor. Fanatics who kill by “divine law” in response to a perceived insult to the prophet or to allah are carrying out an “honor killing” (a murderous misnomer if there ever was one). But Mohammed (speaking of a misnomer) Bouyeri wasn’t finished:

You can send all your psychologists and all your psychiatrists, and all your experts, but I’m telling you, you will never understand. You cannot understand. And I’m telling you, if I had the chance to be free and the chance to repeat what I did on the second of November, wallahi [by god] I’m telling you, I would do exactly the same.

It is feeding into Bouyeri’s speckless stupidity to attempt to understand him beyond what he says. He’s right: you will never understand, not because science and psychology cannot understand a man like Bouyeri, but because there is nothing to understand. There is no logic to Bouyeri’s actions and beliefs, not even to his mythical theologies, other than the one he has invented for himself. And what he’s invented is the distillation of simpleton utopias down to their most primitive, and essentially childish, levels: Bouyeri is lustily aggrieved of the loss of something he never had—the ideal religious society of an overwhelmingly imaginary prophet and the equally idealized Morocco where he never lived, but needed, in order to justify his alienation from Holland.

All backgrounds and analyses aside, there are two absolutes in this story: Theo van Gogh, who for all his mad brashness never hurt or threatened anyone, did not deserve to die; nothing he did justified any kind of violent act against him or anyone else. This has nothing to do with either endorsing or celebrating van Gogh’s work (although there’s plenty there to celebrate). It has to do with putting judgments in their proper place. They have a place, to be sure. But not in reach of executioners’ whims.

Equally, nothing Bouyeri can say, nothing that may or may not have happened in his past, nothing he has seen, heard, thought or believed in, no matter how deeply or sincerely or innocently, justifies in the least, or rationalizes, what he did on that “second of November” to Theo van Gogh. To go down that path is to be complicit in his mindset, and in the sort of mindset that wants to substitute murky guilt over Western openness for an absolute defense of that openness, which allows (if it doesn’t require) the sort of work Theo van Gogh produced in order to thrive, and will shrivel the moment the likes of Bouyeri are rationalized, and their “beliefs” given room to shrink the openness that so offends them.

It would be tempting to brand the man who would murder an artist over a thought or a set of ideas a goat fucker. The terms fit the mentality, and do so on the man’s level. But that would be demeaning to goats, who are innocent.

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