You tie my hands
What am I gonna be?
What have I done so bad,
What is my destiny?
There are lots of ways to get a note to stay stuck somewhere. You might use a stapler, some glue, a few thumbtacks. Or if you want to be real sure the note won’t go anywhere you can screw it or bolt it into place. An eight-inch steak-knife plunged spine-deep also works. This last approach would also ensure your bulletin won’t be going anywhere, although it seems unlikely that Theo Van Gogh would have been able to make much farther on his way to work with almost two-dozen bullet holes peppering his frame, multiple stab wounds in his chest, and a slit-throat grinning his mortality.
But the steak knife wasn’t an unreasonable flourish, since Mohammad Bouyeri wanted to be real sure his five-page note wouldn’t flutter away on a brisk November breeze. The note pinned against Van Gogh’s spine was emblematic of the conflict stirring within Europe’s thick Muslim communities. And in a way Bouyeri’s murder of Theo Van Gogh, an un-award-winning director whose own film inspired his slaying, was Symbolic Terror in miniature.
Bouyeri was incensed not by Van Gogh’s person but by his body of work, his death was not meant as murder so much as bloodied graffiti. Bouyeri’s rage was a response to a film Van Gogh had directed which presented an unflattering representation of women’s place in Muslim societies. By pincushioning Van Gogh’s body with bullet and stab wounds Bouyeri both ensured that Van Gogh would produce no more art and created a canvass of his own.
A canvas on a carcass. And a canvass with a purpose.
Mutilating Van Gogh’s body and leaving it on a public boulevard in the middle of the afternoon created a spectacular vehicle to carry his message to the media. Like all thought-out Symbolic Terror, killing someone was meant to portray a message, to have meaning behind it. And here, unlike mass Symbolic Terror, the message wasn’t a broad ideology – something mercurial – but the five-page note impaled on Van Gogh’s mutilated person.
The Dutch seemed to implicitly recognize the nature of this violence, meant not only kill but to create spectacle that would draw attention to a message, as they began to refer to it as Holland’s 9/11. However there are two highly important differences between 9/11 and Theo Van Gogh’s murder, outside the obvious difference in scope. While 9/11 was carried out by men who were utterly unintegrated to their host society – some of them borderline illiterate in English – Bouyeri was born Dutch, raised Dutch, and penned his note in poetic Dutch. And, unlike the widespread outrage expressed by Islamic groups worldwide following the carnage of 9/11, after Van Gogh’s body was left to carry Bouyeri’s bloody message with a sickled smile there wasn’t even condemnation of the death by the majority of Islamic groups in Europe.1
In eerie foreshadowing of the mobs of outrage that violently protested across the continent in the spring of 2006 in response to caricatures of the prophet Mohammed published in European newspapers, Van Gogh’s murder hinted that Muslim and European mores may not exactly mix. But many countries house differing ethnic groups who themselves hold opposing cultural values. What exactly causes the mixture of Muslim and European to so easily turn volatile requires both an understanding of Muslims as a whole, and the appeal the man attempting to become their elder statesman is making.
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Before those immigrant Muslims who reside in Europe and elsewhere in the West can be examined, the core population of Muslims living within Arab states, the group bin Ladin draws his base of support from, should be examined. They posses the answers to why all Muslims, Arab or not, might be so predisposed to accepting bin Ladin’s broadcasts of violent revolutionary rhetoric. Humankind long ago proved that it can twist any sort of ideology to serve any sort of ends, with religion being a common and recurring candidate for manipulation. However, at any one historical moment it is possible to analyze the reality of how an ideology, a religion in particular, is being practiced.
As the Prophet Mohammed said, religion is how someone actually conducts themselves, not theoretically how one should act under its edicts. In the past Christianity was used to justify atrocities and violence, but a current analysis would quickly reveal that violence under the Christian banner has lessened over the last few centuries, though it has not disappeared entirely. For this to change, it was necessary for the infallibility of the religious authorities and the text itself to be challenged, which slowly occurred over generations during the Protestant Reformation.
With the Reformation came widespread belief in the idea of individual interpretation; no longer was the Church the sole source of religious interpretation or answers, each person became, albeit over a period of years, empowered to read the text themselves and form their own idea of what Christianity meant.
It took a religious revolution for Christians to break from the control of an authoritative Church, a process that hasn’t yet occurred in the most public and commonly practiced forms of Islam. Proving this requires establishing both that Muslims are inordinately involved in religious conflict, and then that the faith itself is cemented in a status that makes its believers easy prey for the manipulation of extremist and fundamentalist leaders.