Radio Netherlands Worldwide

SSO Login

More login possibilities:

  • Facebook
  • Flickr
  • Twitter
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
Saturday 20 December  
Theo van Gogh - ANP
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Column: The Dutch Islam debate since Theo van Gogh

Published on : 2 November 2009 - 11:01am | By Michel Hoebink
More about:

On an autumn day in 2004, an event occurred on an Amsterdam street corner that came to symbolise a clash between two ideologies. An artist, the ultimate symbol of the Western concept of freedom of expression, was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist, a believer in the absolute and singular truth of Allah.

Film maker Theo van Gogh had insulted the prophet and called Muslims ‘goat-shaggers’. But it was generally assumed that he was murdered for his co-operation with Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali in making her film Submission, in which Koran verses were projected on naked and tortured female bodies. 
After the murder, an emotional debate about Islam and the freedom of expression erupted in the Netherlands. A series of incidents kept this debate alive over the years: the international row about the Danish Mohammed cartoons and in the Netherlands the statements of the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders who called the Koran a fascist book and the prophet Mohammed a barbarian warlord.

Healthy debate
On the one hand there are the critics of Islam and militant defenders of the freedom of expression. They feel that their democratic freedom is threatened by invading hordes of Muslim migrants. The freedom of expression, they claim, is absolute and also includes the right to insult. Look at the Dutch writer Gerard Reve, they say, who caused a row in the 1960s by claiming that he had met God in the shape of a grey donkey. That’s how we deal with religion in the Netherlands! Muslims better get used to it and stop being so over-sensitive. It is healthy to fiercely debate Islam and tell each other the truth.

On the other hand there are those who say: If you talk to Muslims that way, you’ll only alienate them. The Islam critics, however, are allergic to such objections. “Our freedom of expression is being limited!”, they cry. But is that really the case? Slander and sowing hatred is prohibited by law; but within those boundaries no one denies them the right to insult. The issue is not a legal but a moral one. The question is not whether it is allowed, but whether it is a good idea to insult Muslims. Whether this is the way we want to debate with each other in public.

Living in the 60s

People who want to stir up a debate with Muslims by insulting them are still living in the 1960s and refuse to see that immigration has profoundly changed Dutch society. We now live in a multicultural country of people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds and different norms and values. In such a situation diplomacy should rule, instead of the idea that differences should be settled by insulting one another. Doing that only causes deep injuries that may take generations to heal.  
It is therefore no surprise that the ‘fierce debate’ the Islam critics long for has not come off the ground. The Dutch ‘Islam debate’ is a debate between indigenous Dutch in which Muslims hardly participate. The fierce criticism of Islam does not tempt them to respond. On the contrary, the majority withdraws thinking: “They don’t want us”.


A small but growing group of Dutch Muslim youths opt for the fundamentalist ‘Salafist’ Islam that turns its back on Western society. Some of them even radicalise in the direction of violent interpretations. Research demonstrates that this development is causally related to the sharpening of the Islam debate in the Netherlands. That is something we also could have figured out without research: radicalisation on the one side leads to radicalisation on the other.

The heat has diminished a bit, but the Dutch debate about Islam and the freedom of expression has not progressed very much since Theo van Gogh was murdered. The indigenous Dutch continue quarrelling over the question of how they should deal with Muslim immigrants, while the immigrants themselves withdraw. If there is hope, it lies with the younger generations who take multicultural society for granted and do not long to return to the homogenous society of the 1950s and ‘60s. Perhaps – hopefully – they will deal with each other more openly. But they will be burdened with the heritage of the Wilders era.

Photo: Theo van Gogh - ANP

Related content


user avatar
knirb 22 December 2010 - 8:47am

Mr. Hoebink’s conclusion that fierce debate should be stopped in order not to radicalize and alienate Muslims shows that he is completely out of touch with what is happening in the real world. From his politically correct bubble, he has failed to notice that unapologetic critics of Islam, like Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and many others, have helped breathe life into the debate.
Here are just a few of the growing number of web sites on the subject:
Tact has already proven useless when dealing with Islam. Just remember the hysterical reaction to Salman Rushdie’s mild comments.
Islam began by alienating itself from any kind of debate or criticism through brutality early in it’s existence and has persisted in doing so for many centuries. This lack of exposure has been the real reason for Islamic hypersensitivity.
If humanity had followed folks like Mr. Hoebink in playing it safe all along, we would never have had the benefit time honoured agitators like Martin Luther and many others.
Contrary to what is suggested in this article, his 2008 US embassy report notes a diminishing reactivity by Muslims.(see part 5, second paragraph):

Anonymous 19 July 2010 - 8:10pm / usa

Freedom of Speech includes the right to offend. Death over cartoons? Cartoonists on terrorist lists? Yet they claim to be the religion of peace.
Insulting Mohammed is a non physical act, the very idea that someone can justify killing over an insult. It is nothing like rape or beating of a relative. Let the punishment fit the crime - Draw some cartoons back. While Islam harbors murder and hate we should not accept it in our society

Anonymous 4 November 2009 - 4:21pm
This article is pure nonsense; "Slander and sowing hatred is prohibited by law; but within those boundaries no one denies them the right to insult." A statement like; "The prophet mohammed married a young girl and had sex with her when she was 9 years old. Within todays standards he would be considered a pedophile" is considered an insult to islam that justifies killing of the person that made that statement. A religion cannot be insulted, people can. The prophet himself is dead so there is nobody that can reasonably be insulted by this statement. In this case people are even insulted by an objective truth (insulted by reality ... how odd). The reaction they give is fatwas and death threats and you write that "no one denies them the right to insult". In which taleban cave have you been living these past 10/20 years?
Andrei Yudin,Moscow 4 November 2009 - 1:16pm
Individual liberties constitute the main achievement of the so-called Western civilization.All other civilizations are far behind in this respect.It may seem paradoxical but in many ways the so-called far-right movements are more disposed to defend personal freedom from being undermined by intruders with their alien values and ways of life than persons who pass for liberals.Hence,to accept immigrants and force citizens to respect their alien backward values and mode of life is a policy aimed to deprive citizens of traditional basic rights.
Steve 3 November 2009 - 8:34pm
How are people so blind. I have noticed many of the comments blaming this behavior on the native Dutch population. The naïveté is unbelievable. Example: Geert Wilders was not allowed into the UK for saying that a certain percentage of new immigrants are hostile to the West and should be deported. I watched "the interview" that caused so much controversy. He said he wanted to help immigrants that cherished Dutch values integrate even more. So he is demonized for his comments. He is charged with hate speech by the Dutch government. On the other hand when Islamists get angry at the west they burn American, British, Danish, French, etc. flags and hold up signs "Down with Democracy", "Freedom go to Hell", "Europe learn a lesson from 9/11", "All Juice[sic] must die", "Get ready for the Real Holocaust". These were all displayed at anti-western rallies IN Europe. Were any of these people prosecuted for hate speech? The way I see it is Islamic extremists want to criticize the West almost daily, yet they do not want anyone in the West to be critical of them. As mentioned before, if native Europeans took to the streets and started burning the Saudi, Pakistani, Turkish, or Moroccan flags would they be charged with hate speech? How about if they held up signs similar to those stated above directed at immigrant groups, would they be charged with hate speech?. I think we know the answer to the last two questions is obvious. Freedom of speech is not a one way street, it is all or nothing. This political correctness and self hate is going to be the end of our societies. Lack of integration is not the fault of the native Dutch, French, German or British, it is 100% the fault of the ideology that subjugates these native populations into the all to flattering "infidel" category. This is perpetuated by the radical teachings in European, North American, and Australian Mosques. If we want to make real progress, deport radical imams that are not full citizens and focus on education. Also, if one is receiving government housing assistance it should be in a mixed community and not an isolated "compound".
Madogeoff 3 November 2009 - 7:56pm
The slaying of Theo van Gogh still feels like Vincent was murdered. It chills me. The fright is in the attack on our every value that radical Islam instigates. While populist Islam smiles, our irenic intelligentsia dawdle. I regret that there may be no political solution as Muslims appear to have no intentions to redress their collective desire to wage this religious, cultural, economic and military war. Without bold Islamic leaders forging tolerance and leading the battle against terrorism, (like handing in bin Laden and his ilk), and without Western powers resolving to fight effectively with a united front, this perfidy can only escalate from local, to regional, to all out world war. Belatedly, we will all be forced to choose sides, with annihilation through mutually assured destruction once again resurrected and hanging over us. Geopolitical greed, citizen apathy, media folly and military incompetence will be the death of us. I've chosen my side, I'm with Vincent.
gsw 3 November 2009 - 1:33pm
"while the immigrants themselves withdraw..." Will somebody explain to me (without sarcasm) why, if they do not like European society, they insist on moving here and expect us to adjust to them? I have nothing against multi-culture per se. But then, I know what it means. It does not mean everybody else giving up their life-style and traditions to accommodate wining misogynists whose intension was no to integrate but to assimilate. They get upset when we question their practising negative discrimination while demanding positive discrimination. Their mistreatment of children and grown women. I have no objection to them wearing flowing robes but there is a time and place. Police should wear police uniform - not religious affiliation uniforms. School children should be dressed in clothes which will allow them to take an active part in the activities of the school, including sports, music, art, science, arguments and running. Religion should not be a criterion. This fetish they have of making everything dependent on religion is poisons and must not be tolerated in the 21st. century.
Anonymous 21 December 2009 - 2:38pm / NL

I totally agree with you.
If they do not liberty or freedom, why don't they chosse to stay in Arab countries?
Why those Muslim asked brutally others to accept their so-called traditions but refuse to accept other people's civilization? They can not explain.
And the fact is that Muslims in Europe commit crimes suce as stolen, rape and intimidation to other peoples, but they never feel guilty because the vitims are not Muslim, it is purely silly and stupid?

Colored Opinions 2 November 2009 - 11:39pm
Most political parties (and many Dutch journalists) in the Netherlands talk proudly of the fact that they think Islamic immigrants are backward and a burden to society both economically and culturally. In other words these immigrants are considered second class citizens, even by the ruling coaltion parties. These parties are focused on closing borders for "chanceless" immigrants. Just remember the "judeo christian values" campaign slogan by Balkenende (CDA) which stressed the supposed superiority of Dutch culture. Geert Wilders is just a minor player in the dynamics of Dutch politics. Don't be fooled, actually a large part of the younger generation think that considering immigrants as second class citizens is normal and cool. Just visit the popular youth websites and you will understand how much respect these young Dutch citizens have in general for immigrants, muslims or asylumseekers. After ten years of Balkenende legislation this piece lacks total sense of reality. Immigrants in the Netherlands will have to learn from immigrant organisations in the US like La Raza, learn quick!
Hiram 3 November 2009 - 12:22am
"Don't be fooled, actually a large part of the younger generation think that considering immigrants as second class citizens is normal and cool. Just visit the popular youth websites and you will understand how much respect these young Dutch citizens have in general for immigrants, muslims or asylumseekers"..........Why does the younger generation think it's normal and cool to classify immigrants as second-class citizens? Do you think some of the cause and effect in the negative feelings might be due the immigrants and how they treat the the host nation and it's citizens? People get their perceptions of others by the way they are treated. When thousands of crimes are committed in the name of Islam on a daily basis around the world and the world's non-violent Muslims do nothing about the crimes (by protesting against the crimes), young people associate and perceive immigrants, especially Muslims, as second-class citizens. If immigrants want respect, they have to give respect. How do you respect anyyone who comes into your home and they don't respect you or your customs. If the Muslims in the Netherlands want to be classified as first-class citizens, they need to act like first-class citizens With Rights comes Responsibilties.
Shukri 2 November 2009 - 10:38pm
The murder of Van Gogh is inexcusable, but you can't expect people not to react when you slander their religion. The overwhelming majority of Muslims protested peacefully, and it was just an individual that reacted violently. Europeans, tellingly, are no different:
user avatar
knirb 22 December 2010 - 8:17am

You ought to have stopped at "inexcusable" when discussing Theo van Gogh’s murder. Adding "but" negates what you said before. I would guess that you’re perfectly fine with this heinous act, but that you don’t like how it has reflected upon your religion. Otherwise you might have protested strongly (yet peacefully) against it, and not provided lame justification.
Theo's murder is not an isolated event, like the one you give a link to. There have been countless comments from Muslim's to behead and injure those who criticize your religion (remember Salman Rushdie?).
Mohammed Bouyeri was not a renegade individual. He was one of seven members of the Hofstad Group, who planned the murder and he was representative of radical Islamism, which bases it’s actions on Quranic scripture.
Criticism is not slander. I do not think that this criticism is going to stop. Islam needs to quit having temper tantrums, and deal with it's problematic aspects (murder paedophelia, bullying, war mongering) if it is going to find it's place in the modern world. “Moderate Islam” is going to have to step up it’s protest against radicalization. Weak reactions like yours will understandably be construed to be tacit approval.
Here is some good reading on the clash between western and Islamic views on free speech.

Guy from Poland 2 November 2009 - 8:13pm
So how exactly should a debate look like? How about burning Iranian flags and Ahmadinejad's effigies every time there is an execution of a gay person in Iran? Or how about burning Saudi Arabian Embassy for not allowing their female citizens work without male guardian consent? Shocked? But this is the kind of diplomatic discussion that muslims invite us to when something they do not like happens.
Roderick 2 November 2009 - 7:03pm
Just one sentence that is to the point: Muslims better get used to it and stop being so over-sensitive.
Marcq 2 November 2009 - 2:47pm
Diplomacy is not something that happens within a society. That is something that happens between societies. Muslim and anti-Muslim Dutch should be able to quarrel and make fun of each other like brothers and sisters do. I may not agree with the views of Geert Wilders, but I do think the Islamic reaction to Western freedom of speech vis-a-vis things like the Muhammed cartoons and Theo van Gogh's film is enough to scare many Westerners into becoming Islamophobic. The burning of Danish flags, attacks on embassies, the unbridled anger, and the demand that we tone down our traditions in the name of diplomacy and respect only breeds resentment. Resentment that in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran public executions continue to take place, yet protesters in those countries are protesting about such trivial matters as cartoons and blasphemy. I think a lot more people are on the fence about this issue than is usually assumed. I'm certainly on the fence. I don't think that people should be branded far-right simply for publicly disliking Islam. But I don't think Muslims should be expelled from the West or anything like that. I cherish my ability to criticize all organized religions, so you can't ask people to tone down their freedom of speech when that in and of itself is so new and fresh, even in the West. I don't think we would see this type of polarization if the official line wasn't so one-sided: just shut up and accept the multicultural society without criticizing it. I think Femke Halsema said it best: "Ik verdedig het recht van mensen om orthodoxe islamitische opvattingen te hebben en verdedig mijn recht om daar problemen mee te hebben." The problem is that people don't feel they have the right to have problems with Islam without being called far-right, so if they do finally voice a problem with it, they get pushed into that corner, which only radicalizes society even more. This article seems to suggest that Islamophobic Dutch are to blame for the increasing radicalization of young Dutch Muslims. What if it neither caused each other, and instead it is simply people's lack of freedom to criticize Islam without pushed into the far-right corner and label by the mainstream? That causes people to become anti-Islamic and that causes young Muslims to feel more antagonized in society. Maybe it's exactly articles like this one that are at the root of the problem, by blaming anti-Islamic Dutch for all the problems in society and thereby pushing people further right.
Sam 11 December 2009 - 1:12am / poland
Within this Thread, I have just a point that i want to highlight, well it's 2 points in fact: -First is about "freedom of expression" and it' s just my point of view of this famous "concept" of :freedom of expression, freedom itself should be something noble and good within socities to achieve certain happiness and comprehension and security between people, so if my freedom will hurt somebody,whoever ,so it's not freedom it's an insult and harrassment to that person or community. maybe you'll say it's just a Talk, an expression so there's no physical harm!! but the truth that we have witnessed through history and years that every war or terrorist actes have begun with talk with an expression, arguments which led to killing alot an alot of inncocent people....first it's an idea in your mind, then expression then a big talk but it's not enough for you to say that I'm here so finaly you get to the the whole point is we need to make sure what concept we or 'they'tryin to perpetuate through our society..really start thinking about this freedom of expression...Van gogh has used it to make a hit or be famous or whatever but he misused it because he didn't understand it... -Second point is about Islam, for non muslim people , Islam is what make the muslims BE, Islam define muslim the way they are, the way they live, the way they do everything and i mean everything from A to Z...and their jalousy about Islam can not be imagined it's unbelievable, God Allah and Islam is the first thing in their you dont make fun of Islam with a muslim person because it's more than you hitting him or one of his familly or rapping his mother or wife non-muslim people should understand that coz if someone is hiting or rapping your daughter or wife time after time you'll kill him if you get the chance. So I hope I make my point here , just to say that the LOVE of muslims to Islam is unknown or has not been lived or exprienced by non-muslim people. and finally Freedom is Respect is understanding each one another...Go insult your boss coz you feel doing it in one morning and you'll get your ass kicked right the way but you won't coz you're afraid!!
Hiram 11 December 2009 - 2:46am / usa
Freedom of Expression doesn't means a person has a right to express himself but it does not mean one has a right to insult another person. Freedom of Expression has two parts and they are rights and responsibilities. If one feels like he has the right to express himself, he should not complain to much when he gets himself hurt by the person he insulted. That is what happen to the rapper and Wilders. Wilders used his political position to express his outrage of Islam and the believer of Islam, the rapper, expressed his outrage against Wilders by rapping a threat at Wilders because he didn't like how Wilders expressed himself against his religion and Muslims at large. Both of them exceeded the Freedom of Expression because neither believed in one's responsibilities, but as we saw the rapper got punished for rapping out a threat; whereas, Wilders went free of his threats against the Dutch Muslims because he has the support of thousands of Dutch citizens wo don't like Islam. { No one stood-up for the rapper. I wonder why? They both should have went to jail because both are dangerous. What they both did was express threats. Threats are dangerous in a free society! It has no place in the freedom of expression.

Post new comment

Please be reminded all comments must be in English, short and to the point - guideline 250 words. Abusive and inappropriate comments will be removed.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

RNW on Facebook

RNW Player

Video highlights

Ladies on the move
RNW is keen on featuring inspiring women in our target countries, women who...
What about men?
In many countries, men don't stick around to raise their children. This is...