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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Assassination as the Ultimate Censorship

Just watched the infamous 10-minute film that resulted in the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh's murder. Almost all Muslims would have been upset by the sarcasm that the technically well-made and well-directed film uses, even without the use of a naked female body upon which qur'anic verses are projected. But, I doubt if so many Muslims, outside of Holland, would have justified Theo's killing in their minds, had a different 'effect' been used. I say "outside of Holland" because fewer and fewer people - as one recedes from Holland and Europe - knew much about him or his views.

Although not revealing anything earth-shatteringly new about its subject matter (the position of women in Islam), frequently a source of controversary among Muslims themselves, the contents and context of the film - not to mention its well-timed release, given the surging inquisitiveness about all things 'Islamic' - are powerful enough to have had impact without such provocative imagery.

Perhaps, by using something different, he may not even have gotten himself killed, at least not as such a seemingly direct response to the film ... (though that's difficult to say: Predicting actions of the very angry, is almost impossible). In any case, this was his film and artistic license gave him a right to choose to present things any way he wished, I suppose, in his part of the world. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, most of all for Theo, the world is no longer a collection of isolated parts.

My initial reaction had been that of a film-buff and self-taught media analyst: Just who was the target audience, I wondered? Muslims, who were expected to alter, give-up, or even challenge their own views and beliefs after seeing this? Obviously not! In any case, SUBMISSION is too confrontational to be considered an element of rational debate. Was it meant, then, for Muslim-haters who were going to gloat (it is unimportant whether 'rightly' or 'wrongly') about yet another bashing? Maybe. Or was it just an act of self-expression and catharsis, as he had said, earlier, of some of his works? Not too likely, I suspect.

The following, adapted from the Wikipedia entry about Theo, may provide the raison d'etrĂ© for the film: Although Theo Van Gogh [grandson of Vincent's brother, art-dealer Theo, after whom he was named] was generally known as a friendly, tolerant character, there were those who saw a venomous side to him as well. When he fell out with someone he tended to respond with hurtful prose. In the 1980s, he became a newspaper columnist, and through the years he used his columns to vent his anger at politicians, actors, film directors, writers and other people he considered to be part of "the establishment". He incurred the anger of leading members of the Jewish community by making comments about what he saw as the Jewish preoccupation with Auschwitz. This quote from a 1991 magazine interview is a typical example of such commentary. Van Gogh explained a "smell of caramel" by stating that "today they're only burning diabetic Jews." When he was criticized by the Jewish historian Evelien Gans, he wrote in Folia Civitatis magazine: "I suspect that Ms. Gans gets wet dreams about being fucked by Dr Mengele." He also expressed the wish that she would sue him so that she would have to explain in court why his remarks were false. 
Van Gogh rejected every form of organised religion. In the late 1990s he started to focus on Islam. He caused widespread resentment in the Muslim community by consistently referring to them as geitenneukers (goat-fuckers), which he justified by reference to alleged remarks on the permissibility of bestiality in a book on Islamic law by the Ayatollah Khomeini (although it is not clear whether Van Gogh actually coined the term geitenneukers, he certainly popularized it). He felt strongly that political Islam is an increasing threat to liberal western societies, and said that, if he'd been younger, he would have emigrated to the U.S.A., which he considered to be a beacon of light in a darkening world. 
Working from a script written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, van Gogh created the 10-minute movie SUBMISSION. The film is about violence against women in Islamic societies. It shows four abused naked women, wearing see-through dresses. Qur'anic verses unfavourable to women are painted in Arabic on their bodies. After the movie was released, both van Gogh and Ayaan received death threats.
Needless to say, the title itself, being a literal translation of "Islam", must have angered many. But, I guess, it wasn't only for the making of SUBMISSION that he was targeted. Obviously, since he had been making waves even earlier, there were Muslims (and even Jews), specially in Holland, who were seething with anger from much before the film's release. As for Ayaan - who comes from Somalia and is an apostate (which leads to another debatable issue; but let's save that for a later post!) living in Holland under political asylum - she had, in an interview, said of the prophet of Islam: "Measured by our [sic] western standards, he is a pervert. A tyrant." Since then, she has received several death threats, including the note that was pinned to Theo's body by the assaassin. She is provided continual police custody, I think because she is also a member of the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament. Many left-wing Dutch intellectuals accuse her of "poisoning the political atmosphere of the Netherlands against Muslims", claiming that she, a self-proclaimed Liberal, "is contributing to the very cause she claims to be fighting against".

Measure this view against another: the fact that she was included by Time Magazine in their 2005 listing of 100 Most Influential People in the World and was awarded the annual Democracy Prize of the Liberal Party of Sweden for her courageous work for democracy, human-rights and women's rights this August.

Confusing, isn't it? This multiplicity of views is, I suppose, what makes us human! Many are quick to point out parallels to the Rushdie affair and, to a lesser extent, Taslima Nasreen's case. But those two writers, IMHO, should have been more sensitive to, and aware of, the possible reactions, since, unlike Theo, they were parts of the very communities they eventually angered. The fatwa was, to my mind, a purely political attempt by Khomeini to stay in the limelight. Had it really been considered a seriously religious edict, Rushdie would have been killed by an Irani by now. As it stands, not even an attempt has been made. (Thank God for little mercies!)

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Anonymous Aslam Sharif said...

Somehow you make being a Muslim more tolerable :-)

15 September, 2005 23:59


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