Controversy’s Precarious Position in Dutch International Cultural Policy

In 2004 Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered following the release of his film Submission, a critical commentary on the role of women in Islamic families. According to his assassin, van Gogh was targeted for attacking the Islamic faith. Four years later Geert Wilders, a Dutch Member of Parliament, prepared to release his own film Fitna, a controversial depiction of Islamic terrorism. Predominantly Islamic nations began to boycott Dutch products in protest, embroiling the Netherlands in political debate. In response to this economic pressure, the Dutch government advised cancelling the film’s release, displaying a willingness to limit artistic expression in order to maintain the Netherlands’ national image and economic interests abroad. 

In “Footprint or Fingerprint: International Cultural Policy as Identity Policy,” Toine Minnaert examines Dutch international cultural policy to explore the role of the government in constructing national identity in relation to ‘the other.’ He suggests that maintaining a positive Dutch national image and strong economic position abroad trumps the role of the arts in the nation’s international cultural policy. 

Minnaert outlines five elements that contribute to the formation of national identity: the story of a nation, its origin, the myths and stories surrounding that origin, invented traditions that link citizens together, and a belief that the nation is defined by unique and specific cultural characteristics. The function of this crafted identity is to set a nation apart from the rest of the world. Thus, constructing an identity around what a nation is and is not also implicitly shapes the identities of ‘the other’—in this case, Islamic nations. Within this framework, the arts play a prominent role in expressing and reinforcing national identity abroad.  Yet when Fitna threatened to undermine the maintenance of a positive Dutch image and provoked a politically-motivated boycott of Dutch goods, the government advised against the release of the film in the name of economic interests. 

Minnaert suggests that the diplomatic motivations behind a nation’s international cultural policy shift over time. Today, Dutch diplomacy is increasingly fueled by economic concerns. While artistic expression once played a central role in promoting a nation’s image, controversial expressions such as Fitna are now viewed as a liability due to their potential to threaten the nation’s image abroad. As this case demonstrates, suppressing such controversial expressions is increasingly common as economic motivations drive diplomacy. 

Minnaert, Toine. 2014. "Footprint or Fingerprint: International Cultural Policy as Identity Policy." International Journal of Cultural Policy, 20(1): 99-113.
DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2012.722997

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