Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Theo Van Gogh

Free-Speech Martyr

Theo Van Gogh
Theo Van Gogh

Theo Van Gogh, 47, the great grandson of art dealer Theo Van Gogh and great grandnephew of the famed Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, led an extraordinary life much like his predecessors. Theo was an out-spoken and prominent Dutch film director, author, journalist, actor, producer and an advocate of free speech who used the media as an open forum to broadcast his controversial views on religion, politics and social mores and values. The candid and often provocative method he used to express his ideologies quickly propelled him into the national spotlight in the Netherlands.

However, his critical views and brusque approach also made him unpopular among a lot of people. According to a November 2, 2004 article in, businessman and broadcaster Harry Mens described Theo as "a bit of a 'kamikaze,' who expressed his views regardless of whom he might offend." And offend he did. He harshly criticized Christianity and Judaism. However, the Muslim community bore the brunt of his irritation, which was evident when he likened Dutch Muslim immigrants to "goat f--kers."

Video still from Submission
Video still from Submission

Anger against Van Gogh reached its pinnacle on August 29, 2004 with the airing of the television film Submission on Dutch television, which was the creation of Van Gogh and controversial Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The film depicted four partially nude women in long, dark transparent veils, who had texts from the Koran written in calligraphy on their bare skin. Some of the women appeared to have reddened whip marks on their backs and legs, on which the texts were written that described the physical punishments, sanctioned by the Koran for disobedient women. Not surprisingly, the highly controversial 10-minute film sparked outrage from the Muslim community. 

Not long after the release of Submission, Theo began to receive death threats. Concerned for his welfare, his colleagues urged him to hire a bodyguard for protection – a suggestion which Theo initially entertained. Yet, eventually he brushed it off because he didn't believe anyone would want to target him.


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