In July 2005, Mohammed Bouyeri stood trial for the murder of Theo van Gogh. A year earlier, in broad daylight on a street in Amsterdam, he shot Theo eight times, and then attempted to decapitate him. Theo’s crime, for which Bouyeri meted out a death sentence, was a simple one: he had chosen to direct a film, Submission, that addressed the mistreatment of women under Islam.
I wrote the script for that film — so Bouyeri pinned a note to Theo’s chest when he killed him, declaring that I would be next.
During his trial, Bouyeri said very little. But what he did say chilled everyone present. He declared he was not sorry for Theo’s murder; that he would do it again. As Geraldine Coughlan, who covered the trial for the BBC, recalled: “There was total shock in the courtroom. Some people were actually standing up because they couldn’t believe what he was saying. It was really without emotion.”
Bouyeri was a pure, cold-hearted killer, radicalised to believe a narrative that anyone who disparages Islam or the Prophet must die. Over the past week, I have repeatedly thought back to that trial, and Bouyeri’s unswerving belief in his Islamist worldview. For it seems to me that, sixteen years later, his need to shape the world within a narrative has found an unlikely new following here in the West.
Of all the narratives competing for our attention, there is none as volatile as the one that tells the story of Israel-Palestine. Indeed, there is no other conflict in the world that manages to combine all the highly charged story-lines of our time: the narrative of the oppressor versus the oppressed, of the coloniser versus the colonised, of the genocide perpetrator and system of supremacy.
It is a subject on which everyone seems to have a strong opinion. It is overloaded with emotion; with people desperate to tell their side’s “truth”. Instead of a thoughtful, conscientious approach, people rush to defend their “side” — and, in doing so, swiftly drift away from facts, and closer and closer to narratives that dismiss and overshadow objective truths.
It was a false narrative that led Mohammed Bouyeri to kill Theo, and express his intent to kill me. So I don’t say this lightly: the narratives circulating today regarding Israel and the Jewish people are equally dangerous, and are already wreaking havoc around the world. How else are we to explain the fact that, since the most recent conflict erupted between Israel and Gaza, acts of anti-Semitism have spiked in many corners of the Western world?
Of course, for several decades, there have been clandestine pockets of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and the US. This is not a new phenomenon. Despite the horrors that culminated at Auschwitz, anti-Semitism has been haunting our societies for years, continuing to be taught in far-Left, far-Right and Islamic circles. I first encountered these teachings as a child in Africa; as a teenager I joined the Muslim Brotherhood, where I was taught to believe that Jews were not even human, but descendants of pigs and monkeys.
Today, however, anti-Semitism is no longer confined to the fringes of society, but instead has started to leak into the mainstream. Social media has turned it into a contagion, normalising anti-Semitic tropes and attacks. Following the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism found “17,000 tweets which used variations of the phrase, ‘Hitler was right’” in just one week. Likewise, anti-Semitism has ferociously spread across Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. This is in large part due to a group of popular “influencers” who — along with their thousands of young, impressionable followers — use their platforms to highlight the Palestinians’ plight. No doubt they think they are fighting a just cause. What they may not realise, however, is that they are inadvertently harming Jews, including those living in the West.
I say “inadvertently” because I believe the majority of users posting infographics and memes about Israel-Palestine are simply under-educated and ill-informed. After all, one cannot explain thousands of years of history between Arabs and Israelis in a few screenshots, let alone 280 characters.
Take supermodel Bella Hadid, who, as Daniella Greenbaum Davis has pointed out, has almost four-times as many Instagram followers as there are Jews in the entire world. In response to the conflict, she joined a pro-Palestinian protest in Brooklyn, chanting: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — an anti-Semitic slogan coined by the Palestine Liberation Organization to call for the elimination of Israel.
Until recently, it was a chant frequently associated with the likes of Hamas, a terrorist organisation whose 1988 charter explicitly called for genocide of the Jewish people. But in today’s hysterical climate, one of the West’s most famous celebrities can use it and expect applause. Indeed, when the Israeli government accused Hadid of advocating for the elimination of the Jewish state, many of her fans attempted a semantic defence, claiming that Hadid was innocently advocating for a free Palestine, without any harm to the Jews.
But this is where the role of false narratives becomes increasingly alarming. It is my opinion that Ms. Hadid was unaware of the context and history of the chant; I do not believe she understood she was calling for the elimination of Israel, or the expulsion or genocide of the Jewish people. Similarly, I do not believe that she, nor her niece’s father, singer Zayn Malik, understood the implications of describing Israel as a “colonizer”.
Yet we must not ignore the fact that such descriptions have a pernicious impact on society at large. For whether they realise it or not, sinister actors and adversaries — look no further than China — have started to capitalise on the ignorance of our progressive elites, using their narratives to harness and spread more anti-Semitism.
Indeed, Jewish communities across the world are already experiencing the fall-out from a new wave of anti-Semitism that has been legitimised by celebrity activists. This month, for example, has also seen the rise of a second frequently misunderstood slogan: a version of “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Mohammed will return”, which dates back to the massacre of the Jews by Muhammad and his army in Khaybar, northern Arabia, in the 7th century.
Today, it remains a battle-cry used by Muslims when attacking Jews or Israelis; in the past month alone, it has been used not only in Istanbul, Casablanca, Kuwait City, Doha and Karachi, but in western Europe, too: in Utrecht, Warsaw, Vienna, Rome, Munster, London, Brussels, Berlin and Amsterdam.
The resurgence of anti-Semitism Europe, in many ways, is unsurprising; it has been simmering under the surface for over a decade. Yet despite a number of terrible anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, America, by comparison, has felt relatively immune — immune, that is, until now. Indeed, I have friends who moved to the US from Europe a decade ago to escape anti-Semitism. This month, for the first time, they are now questioning whether it is safe to walk to synagogue or wear their kippahs.
And is it really so hard to see why? Last Saturday, a man was arrested for attacking Jewish diners outside a restaurant in Los Angeles “on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon”. Two days earlier, a Jewish man, Joseph Borgen, was attacked by a group of pro-Palestinian activists in New York City’s Times Square. They reportedly beat him with a crutch, sprayed him with mace, called him a “dirty Jew” and explained that “Hamas is going to kill all of you”. Remarkably, a photo of one of the men accused of assaulting Borgen, Waseem Awawdeh, recently appeared in a now-deleted Instagram photo posted by Bella Hadid from a pro-Palestinian protest.
Yet what I found most disturbing was how Awawdeh’s comments following the attack mirrored those of Mohammed Bouyeri’s after he killed Theo van Gogh. Just as Bouyeri refused to apologise, Awawdeh reportedly proclaimed from his jail cell: “If I could do it again, I would do it again.” A video has since been released, purporting to show Awawdeh leaving prison on bail; his friends welcome him outside, put him on their shoulders and proclaim that he was a “hero”.
And herein lies the problem: when such odious acts as Awawdeh’s can be represented as heroism, you suddenly see how easy it is for false narratives to turn into deadly fantasies.