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Controversial Dutch Filmmaker Is Slain

Van Gogh Angered Muslims With Criticism

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page A04

LONDON, Nov. 2 -- A Dutch filmmaker who outraged members of the Muslim community with his attacks on the treatment of women in Islamic society was gunned down and stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street Tuesday morning.

Witnesses said a gunman opened fire on Theo van Gogh, 47, as the filmmaker bicycled down Linnaeus Street in the eastern part of the city. The gunman then chased him on foot, shot him again and stabbed him, they said. Some reports said the killer slit van Gogh's throat with a knife as the victim lay helpless on the pavement.


The body of Theo van Gogh, who was shot and stabbed to death, lies in a restricted area as experts investigate the murder scene in Amsterdam. (Eran Oppenheimer -- AP)

After a shootout in which one policeman and a bystander were slightly wounded, police wounded and captured the alleged assailant, whom they identified as a 26-year-old man of dual Dutch and Moroccan nationality. The chief prosecutor, Leo de Wit, confirmed that the killer had left a note on the body of van Gogh, who was a great-grandnephew of the painter Vincent van Gogh. The contents of the note were not disclosed.

Friends and associates said van Gogh had received anonymous death threats after Dutch television aired his controversial short film "Submission" in August. The film featured four women who claimed to have been abused by their Muslim husbands and who wore see-through robes showing their breasts, with texts from the Koran scrawled on their bodies.

It was the second political killing to shake this socially tolerant European country in recent years. Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay politician critical of open immigration and Islam, was gunned down in May 2002 by an environmental activist who labeled Fortuyn a "danger" to society.

Tuesday's killing set off a new round of soul-searching and dismay among many people in the Netherlands. "There is a climate that sees people resorting to violence -- that is worrying," Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said at a news conference in Amsterdam.

He called van Gogh "a champion of the freedom of speech" and warned against polarization and intolerance in Dutch society. "On a day like this, we are reminded of the murder of Fortuyn," he added. "We cannot allow bullets to rule our society because then dialogue is impossible."

Amsterdam residents held a memorial gathering Tuesday evening at Dam square in the city center. "We will show loud and clear that freedom of speech is important to us," declared Job Cohen, Amsterdam's mayor. He said van Gogh would not have wanted a silent vigil. "We do not want silence," he said, "we want noise."

Among those who planned to attend were Muslim groups who condemned the killing as barbaric. "People are rather shocked and embarrassed," said Yassin Hartog, coordinator of the Islam and Citizenship Foundation, a group that promotes peaceful dialogue. "Everybody wants to make sure we all stick together, Muslims and non-Muslims. Tonight's meeting is for everyone who is outraged at this event."

Hartog, a convert to Islam, said that van Gogh's film had deeply insulted many Muslims but that the filmmaker had been invited to address a meeting of the Moroccan community in Amsterdam. "He was very outspoken, but he was not a racist," Hartog said. "He was attempting to show in his own way where religious views and liberal views clashed."

Van Gogh made "Submission" in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch politician and former Somali refugee who said she had fled an arranged marriage and physical abuse in her native country. Ali, who has renounced Islam, has been under police protection since the film was aired because of death threats.

Van Gogh also wrote a book titled "Allah Knows Better" that criticized Islamic extremism and claimed that Muslim clerics hated women.

There are nearly 1 million Muslims in the Netherlands, about 6 percent of the population, and recent opinion polls suggest that many Dutch citizens feel threatened by their presence.

The government has pressed for Dutch language tests and citizenship classes and has announced plans to repatriate as many as 26,000 immigrants -- some of them longtime residents -- whose applications for political asylum have been rejected.

Special correspondent Juliette Vasterman in Amsterdam contributed to this report.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company