Netherlands: Widespread shock at killing of controversial film director

Workers’ movement must organise against racism and cuts

The brutal killing, on 2 November, of the controversial film director and journalist, Theo van Gogh, shocked the people of the Netherlands.

The director was shot and stabbed by a lone assailant in broad daylight in Amsterdam while on his way to work. Police have arrested a man "of Dutch and Moroccan citizenship" for the murder.

The Justice Minister, Piet Hein Donner, claimed that the suspect has "radical Islamic fundamentalist convictions". Police alleged that the detained 26-year old is a "friend of a detained Moroccan terror suspect" (BBC Online, 04/11/04).

Socialists condemn the killing of Theo van Gogh, which will be cynically used by the right wing government and politicians. They will try to use the murder to cut across the recent mass anti-austerity cuts movement, by appealing to the need for ‘national unity’ etc. Muslims and other minorities will suffer the most as a result of the killing of Theo van Gogh, as they come under police harassment and possibly face racist attacks.

It remains to be seen whether the murder of the director was the work of an individual or of a political Islamic group. Whatever the case, Socialists condemn the reactionary aims and methods of political Islam terrorism. Political Islam is a blind alley for Muslim youth that turn to it out of desperation. In the absence of a mass socialist alternative, some Muslim youth in European countries like the Netherlands turn to political Islam as a ‘solution’ to the daily problems of religious and racial discrimination, police harassment, poverty, joblessness, low pay and poor housing. These youth are also angry and humiliated by the plight of Muslims in Palestine, Iraq and throughout the Middle East, at the hands of Israel and the imperialist powers.

Out of a profound sense of alienation and impotence, some Muslim youth turn to political Islamic and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. But this is a cruel illusion. As the actions of figures like Osama bin Laden show, the agenda of the Islamic fundamentalists is completely reactionary and anti-working class. The monstrous regimes of the former Taleban dictatorship in Afghanistan or the royal family in Saudi Arabia, for example, show that life under reactionary Islamic theocrats entails women, youth and the working class facing terrible oppression.

Furthermore political Islam is incapable of offering an alternative to the system of capitalism and poverty, joblessness and discrimination. In fact, these ideas only divide the working class even more along religious lines, providing the ruling class with a cover to make more attacks on living standards and rights.

Controversial figure

Theo van Gogh was a highly controversial figure. Under the name of freedom of speech and open debate, he often provoked widespread debate and also angry opposition to his opinions, particularly from Muslims. In the past, the director associated with the anti-immigrant, right wing, populist politician, Pim Fortuyn, who was also assassinated in May 2002. Although the maverick director criticised Pim Fortuyn after his death, his current project was a film about politician.

Theo van Gogh’s recently released film, ‘Submission’, portrayed violence against women in Islamic societies. Many Muslims objected to scenes in which an actress is shown in see-through garments with Koranic script written on her body. Muslim leaders accused the film of being ‘blasphemous’. The film was written by Somali-born Dutch, right wing member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Both she and Theo van Gogh received death threats following the showing of ‘Submission’ on Dutch TV.

Socialists, of course, support the right to free speech and freedom of expression, including artistic expression. We stand against all attempts to deny such basic democratic rights, whether they come from right wing governments or from reactionary Muslim leaders or the Christian religious right.

All the democratic rights that exist in the Netherlands, including the right to vote, freedom of assembly, the right to free speech, the right to form trade unions etc, came about because of decades of mass struggle by the workers’ movement. As socialists we defend these rights against the attacks of the bosses, the right wing coalition government and the religious right. Within the framework of capitalism, basic fundamental rights, such as freedom of free expression of opinion and artistic freedom, are under attack. To defend and to extend democratic rights requires a united struggle by the working class against the bosses and reactionaries, as part of a struggle for a socialist society.

Socialists also oppose all forms of racism and reactionary attacks on minorities, including those made under the guise of ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘freedom of expression’. Theo van Gogh attacked all religions in the regular columns he wrote for Dutch newspapers and magazines. But his attacks on Islam, in particular, provoked anger and outrage from amongst the one million-strong Muslim population. Many of his remarks were insulting and reactionary attacks on the Muslims and their rights. According to the Guardian newspaper (04/11/04) Theo van Gogh previously described Muslims as "goat-fuckers" and an Islamic leader as "Allah’s pimp".

Socialists uphold the right of free speech, which includes the right of people to criticise all religions and ideologies. But Theo van Gogh made sweeping and unfounded attacks on Muslims, including reactionary, racist and insulting remarks. He described, for example, Islam as "a retrograde and aggressive" faith, and lumped together reactionary Muslim leaders and Islamic fundamentalists and the majority of Muslims, who are working people and poor. In an interview, with the journalist Bart Funnekotter, from the online magazine, ‘Cultuur’ (18 December 2003), Theo van Gogh said: "I like to insult people with a purpose. I want to warn against the fifth column here in the Netherlands that tries to corrode our way of life."

Although many Dutch people did not take Theo van Gogh seriously and saw him as a maverick, many of his opinions were repeated by politicians.

The Dutch Prime Minister merely referred to the murdered director as "a remarkable fighter for free speech".

On 3 November, a member of parliament from the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) repeated Theo van Gogh’s "fifth column" attack on immigrants. The newspaper, De Volkskrant, quoted the LPF MP: "He says that the assassination of van Gogh proves that the war between the Islamic and the Western culture is fought on Dutch ground as well. Society is threatened by extremists who spit on our culture. They do not even speak our language and walk around in odd dresses. It is a fifth column Theo expressed this like no one else."

The paper also quoted the sociologist Herman Vuisje: "This event shows what climate we have allowed to develop. What kind of people we have accepted and allowed to go their way. How we have left things for too long. The figures are there. Not more than 5 % of the Muslims in the Netherlands are [can be classified as] radical. But that still means a total number of 50,000. Only one of them needs to grab a knife or a gun to throw the Netherlands into deep crisis."

Socialists condemn such attacks on minorities . We are opposed to oppression and discrimination on the basis of religion, race, nationality, sex, ethnic origin etc.

Large protests at killing

The death of Theo van Gogh has unleashed a mixture of moods in Dutch society. On the night of Theo van Gogh’s death an estimated 20,000 people protested against the killing in Dam Square, in central Amsterdam. The rally was called by the mayor of Amsterdam. Reportedly, many Muslims attended to show their opposition to the killing.

The murder of Theo van Gogh will lead to a heightening of racism and reactionary sentiments in society. But at the same time many Dutch people – including those who opposed many of Theo van Gogh’s opinions – fear the killing indicates a further step in the erosion of democratic rights and freedom of expression in a society where these rights are highly valued. The right wing government and politicians, however, are cynically trying to channel the shock and revulsion at the death of Theo van Gogh to further their interests. As the Dutch Offensief (CWI) commented earlier this week:

"It is especially cynical to hear representatives of the establishment come out and talk about the violations of freedom of expression. They are responsible for the increased tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Netherlands. They are responsible for a more hard-line policy on immigrants, as becomes clear when you look at their plans to deport 26,000 asylum seekers. They are also responsible for the increased gap between rich and poor. A period of growing hatred against immigrants was created by consecutive governments and many politicians."

End of ‘social pact’

The crisis of Dutch capitalism has effectively ended the so-called ‘Polder Model’ of the post WW2 decades. This ‘social pact’ was based on the collaboration of bosses, successive pro-capitalist governments and union leaders. In a period of economic upswing in the advanced capitalist countries, the ruling class made concessions to the strong working class, including a welfare system and democratic rights, to enhance ‘social peace’. During the post war years, the number of immigrants to the Netherlands increased enormously, as the bosses need a large pool of cheap labour.

However the end of the post war boom has led to a sharpening of class relations. The ruling class now wants to increase the exploitation of the working class to increase their profits. Over the last decade, in particular, attacks on the rights and the conditions of the working class have fatally undermined the social basis of the ‘Polder Model’.

In the absence of a mass socialist alternative, populist right wing politicians like Pim Fortuyn were able to channel some the anger of workers and middle class people against their falling living standards. Pim Fortuyn attempted to use the legacy of Dutch ‘tolerance’ to attack Muslims and minorities. He blamed immigrants for the deep social and economic problems and his loose party made huge electoral advances shortly after his death in 2002.

This poll result shocked the mainstream right wing parties and Establishment. The main right wing parties rapidly adopted many of the anti-immigrant policies of the Pim Fortuyn List. This, and the implosion of the volatile Pim Fortuyn List grouping, saw the List fall from government. New elections, in 2003, saw the return to power of a more ‘traditional’ coalition of right wing parties, led by the Liberal leader, Balkenende.

Since taking power, the coalition government has tried to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics to allow them to introduce the deepest social cuts since WW2. The government calls for "greater integration of immigrants" through "language tests" and "citizenship classes". It caused outrage with plans to "repatriate" up to 26,000 asylum-seekers.

But having stoked up the flames of religious and racial divisions, the government is now worried that events like the killing of Theo van Gogh can led to widespread racial tensions. It fears this can ‘go out of control’, threatening their class interests. The government held crisis meetings after the death of the film director and police were rushed to urban residential areas that were deemed potential flashpoints.

Only the organised working class can show a way out of the deep social, political and economic crisis in the Netherlands. Recent months have seen a magnificent series of strikes and mass protests against the austerity policy of the government. As Offensief comments: "This has meant a coming together of workers against the demolition of the welfare state- regardless of their nationality and origin."

However, the murder of Theo van Gogh will undoubtedly be used by the government to try to force a ‘deal’ between the trade union leadership, the employers and the government, who are currently in negotiations over the cuts package.

"In the name of ‘national unity’, the trade union leaders, the employers and the cabinet will try to make workers who had taken action before, accept a rotten deal," Offensief warned earlier this week.

Instead of collaborating with this anti-working class government and the bosses, the union leaders should be stepping up militant industrial action to inflict a defeat on the government’s plans. Offensief supporters have participated in the protests, strikes and rank and file union meetings since the start of the mass anti-cuts movement. They have found a warm welcome to their call for action to be increased, including the demand for a general strike.

But rather than take this action, the conservative union leaders set about winding down workers’ protests following the successful selective strikes and mass anti-cuts protest in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, in September and October. A well-prepared one-day general strike, and further unlimited general action, if necessary, would have struck the right wing coalition government a huge blow and possibly led to its downfall.

Fearful that the protests would go ‘too far’, and ‘out of their control’, the union leaders called for a non-binding referendum on the cuts (despite working people having actively demonstrated their overwhelming opposition on many occasions) and entered negotiations with the government. This gave the highly unpopular Balkenende coalition a lifeline. They will probably aim to make a few concessions to the unions and drag out the cuts. Fundamentally, however, the government will still aim to introduce the same draconian package.

If the union leaders are not prepared to act in workers’ interests, the rank and file must do so. The emergence of the ‘Enough is Enough!’ network of union activists, which was initiated by Rotterdam dockers earlier this year, is a very important development. Undoubtedly, the formation of this grouping, and its calls for militant action to stop cuts, acted as a fire beneath the union leaders. ‘Enough is Enough!’ and individual unions must oppose any rotten deal made between union tops and the government. If necessary, the rank and file union activists must organise industrial action across the Netherlands to oppose any cuts, including a general strike.

As well as resisting cuts, the workers’ movement must lead the fight against racism and the attacks on civil liberties and rights. They should not allow the shock felt by many Dutch people over the Theo van Gogh killing to be exploited by right wing politicians. As the recent and historical experience in the Netherlands shows, only a united workers’ movement can bring together workers from all backgrounds to successfully fight cuts and attacks on rights, and also racism and attacks on the Muslim community and other minorities.

Internationally this has also been the experience. When the Labour Movement in Britain organised protest action against racism in the 1970s and 1980s it successfully pushed back the reactionaries. In the early 1990s, Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), in Britain, played a key role in mobilising tens of thousands of youth and workers to push back the fascists and racists. The CWI in Northern Ireland called for the unions to lead the fight against sectarian divisions in society, including at the height of the ‘Troubles’, when many hundreds were killed in sectarian attacks from both sides. Under huge pressure from the working class, the union leaders were eventually forced to call, especially in the 1990s, successful demonstrations, strikes and other protests against sectarianism.

But unless the workers’ movement adopts a socialist programme, the far right, the bigots and the racists can make gains again. This was the case in Belgium, where the extreme right Vlaams Blok was able to recover from setbacks in the 1990s and made electoral advances over the last few years. It now has the largest vote in the Flemish part of the country.

The workers’ movement in the Netherlands is well placed to take decisive action today against racism, given the recent months of anti-cuts strikes and demonstrations. The Dutch workers’ movement must be pro-active against racism and discrimination. Meetings should be organised in workplaces, the communities and in schools, colleges and universities, to discuss how to combat racism and to work out a programme that can unite all working people. Such a programme would include the demands of decent housing, jobs, a living wage, a fully funded health care system and education system. This means fighting for a society that puts people before profits and that ends the wide-scale inequalities.

Unfortunately, the Dutch Socialist Party (a broad left formation), which has scores of councillors and members of parliament, and whose leaders have played a prominent role in the anti-cuts movement, only echoed the moral hand-ringing of many right wing politicians over Theo van Gogh’s death.

Members of Offensief in the Socialist Party call for the SP to adopt a fighting, socialist programme against racism and the cuts. Only a class analysis of the underlying reasons for the deep social, economic and political crisis in Dutch society – of which the killing of Theo van Gogh is an extreme symptom – and a socialist alternative can unite all working people in the struggle to change society.


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November 2004