Interview Khaled Choukat

"The Murder of van Gogh Was a Real Catastrophe for Us"

If Theo van Gogh's murderer had attended film school, he would have responded to the film "Submission" in a civilized manner, says Khaled Choukat, director of the Arab Film Festival and delegate for the Greens Party in the Rotterdam parliament.

photo: Larissa Bender
Khaled Choukat: "Van Gogh's murderer killed not only van Gogh, but also the Arab-Muslim minority in Holland"

​​Dr. Choukat, you have organized the fifth Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam seven months after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim of Arab descent. Was the murder of van Gogh a topic at the festival?

Khaled Choukat: There is a discussion in the program about the image of Arabs and Muslims in European and Dutch cinema. For the last Arab Film Festival, that is, before van Gogh's murder, we organized a special program titled "Cinema against terror." Somehow we sensed a imminent danger.

The murder of van Gogh is proof for us that our work is right. I believe that if van Gogh's murderer had attended film school, become a director or film critic, he would have responded to van Gogh's film "Submission" in a civilized manner.

But the Arab Film Festival is aimed more toward the Dutch public than the Arab public!

Choukat: The festival is aimed at the Dutch, irrespective of culture and descent. We are a part of Dutch society. Arabs living in Holland are Dutch citizens, and the Arab Film Festival is for all the Dutch. But a kind of positive racism exists because Arab Muslims form an economically and socially lower class and have their own very specific problems. This is why we need cultural projects, to raise them, so to say, to the level of the society around them.

Approximately one million Muslims live in the Netherlands. Do they feel the Dutch mistrust them more since van Gogh's murder?

Choukat: After van Gogh's murder I wrote in an article that van Gogh's murderer killed not only van Gogh, but also the Arab-Muslim minority, and that he had made it possible for the political right to revive radical racist ideas. He helped to create a negative climate in this country, and Muslims most of all will suffer from this.

Whoever believes that van Gogh's murderer avenged Islam and the Muslims is totally wrong. He harmed them by believing that his religion and his community would profit from his action. He has done them even greater harm culturally, morally, and economically. Van Gogh's murder now serves as a pretext for revoking much of what Arabs and Muslims have achieved legally: the preservation of their cultural and religious identity. The murder of van Gogh was a real catastrophe for us.

Are you in favor of making new immigrants first complete an intensive language course?

Choukat: The group that needs special consideration is the second, third, and fourth generation. Older immigrants can no longer learn the language well and integrate. Besides they have a very strong connection to their home country. They live here in Holland or in Germany or elsewhere in Europe as if they were on holiday and always hope to return. For them Europe is a secure base where they make their living.

We now need to concentrate on the dialog with the following generations. We must support schools attended by pupils of Arab and Muslim descent. We must offer them a good education that opens doors for them in school and at the university. Just imagine the extent of the catastrophe: Of one thousand Muslim pupil who go to the public schools, only one will study at the university.

What do you think this is so?

Choukat: There are many reasons: for example, the poverty of the parents. Economically, Muslim foreigners are the poorest class. Naturally they cannot provide their children with the atmosphere needed for a good education. These parents speak the language of their home country, while the children grow up with Dutch in school and on the streets. Little by little the chance of a dialog between these two generations dwindles.

Added to this are the negative factors in Dutch society, such as "cold racism." If you talk with young Moroccans or Turks, you'll discover that they don't have any Dutch friends. Instead they move around in their closed societies, where they suffer from the hatred and antipathy expressed toward this society. Here their parents – and they – are wronged.

The Dutch Member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali is of Somalian descent. Together with Theo van Gogh, she made the film "Submission" and is now planning on producing a second and third film. Do you believe that Hirsi Ali can act as a bridge between the Dutch and its Muslim minority?

Choukat: In my opinion, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is only a loud voice. She comes from outside and has a bad relationship with the group she would like to change. If you wish to change something, you must first take care to remain calm and not argue provocatively. But with her discourse, she creates conflicts and produces tension.

All this is not helpful for what she actually wants, namely, to emancipate women, to ease the situation, and to disseminate values such as freedom and liberality within the Arab-Muslim community. In reality, nobody listens to her. If you build up psychological and moral barriers between yourself and those you wish to change, nobody will hear you.

Do you believe we need a "European Islam"?

Choukat: I believe that religious texts are neutral, and that the problem is not with the text but in the interpretation. If we wish, we can create a tolerant Islam. What is the major difference between the Koran and the Torah or the Gospels? The differences lie in the details, not in the truth of the texts. The sources are the same. Christians, too, have created negative as well as positive interpretations of the Old and New Testaments.

If a "European Islam" means the integration of Muslims as citizens in European societies and the belief in secularism, democracy, and the principles on which civilization in this region of the world is based, then we need a European Islam.

Interview: Larissa Bender

© 2005

Dr. Khaled Choukat is the director of the Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam and director of the "Center for the Support of Democracy in the Arab World." He is also a member of the Rotterdam parliament, representing the Greens Party.

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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