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- Rotterdam used to be a free city

- The day the fryers and artists are gone, that day we can all start praying, says Chris Ripken.


Chris Ripken's studio is just a stone's throw from the Islamic University of Rotterdam. It is located next to the local mosque, in a neighborhood where 70 percent of residents are immigrants. It is a Turkish area. Chris Ripken has lived here all his life, for fifty consecutive years.

The studio is in Insulindestraat 248, where the local artist works behind a locked door on such a beautiful late summer day as this one.

It was Chris Ripken who wrote the famous words "Gÿ zult niet doden" on the exhibition wall outside the studio. And who was told by the police and the city authorities to wash it away. It sent him indoors. To this day, he has a hard time understanding how this case could explode so completely.

- I think there were three reasons why this Bible quote was perceived as insulting, says Ripken. – After the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the police in this city had a standing order to crack down on anything that could increase the confrontation between the ethnic groups. I also think there was a misunderstanding behind it; that one thought I had written the quote directly on the mosque. The third reason was the fear that the mosque's audience would perceive it as offensive, more than that they actually did. In retrospect, I may see some kind of logic in all this. But at the time, I was completely unprepared for the emotional explosion that would follow in the wake of this utterance.

- This whole story is a good example of how quickly things can get out of control, says Ripken.

- But what made you write this quote, the day the murder occurred?

- It has to do with several things. First, it was a reaction to how hard this society has become. It is somehow not allowed to do or say anything anymore. Everything has become sacred; everyone is sitting on ideas and ideologies that can not be touched. Even the queen has been banned from joking. I think that was my reaction to a society where the actual freedom of expression has shrunk to only completely insignificant things, says Ripken.

- Secondly, the murder of Theo Van Gogh was legitimized with quotes from the Koran. But we cannot go around killing people on the basis of what is written in the Bible or the Koran. I never meant to set an objective humanism in Christianity against something potentially destructive within Islam, quite the contrary. I meant to show that respect for life is something that all religions have in common, and which we can therefore stand together to protect.

For Chris Ripken, the confrontation in Dutch society is not about a hostile and aggressive Islam in the struggle against a liberal and secular state. It is about that no one has really dared to intervene in the underlying cause of this conflict.

- Everything related to Islam in this country is so unredeemed. We never apologized for invading Iraq on false pretenses. We just kept sending soldiers. It was a slap in the face to many people living in this country. And Theo Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali went too far in their attacks on Islam.

- I think a lot of what happens is because we have never had a proper debate about these things. Every time something happens, the whole nation rises to protest against the press. Everything has become the fault of the media. No one dares to seize the real conflict.

Chris Ripken tells the story of what happened the night he had to remove the Bible quote from the wall on the outside: – It happened the same evening that I opened a long-planned exhibition at the hospital here in the city. I was called because a group of people had gathered in front of my studio. When I got there, there were both police and representatives of the city authorities there. Someone had written a subtitle on my quote: It is allowed to kill assholes. It was then that I realized that the murder of Van Gogh could not only be related to a young and confused Muslim. There were people who were willing to apologize for it all, to accept this murder. Still, I thought both the quote and the subtitle could stand. Both were examples of statements surrounding this murder.

But the city authorities thought otherwise. They panicked, Ripken thinks. Then everything happened very quickly. A journalist trying to get in the way of the police, in an attempt to defend the small work of art, was pushed into a police car. The rip had to use the sponge.

The next day Chris Ripken was called by the authorities again. It was an attempt to patch the wound. The artist was offered a public assignment; to create something that symbolized freedom of expression. Something that could be placed in a public place. Ripken thanks yes. But that did not change his feeling that something was about to go completely wrong.

- It was like an impending collapse. A situation reminiscent of an impending civil war. Locally in this district, it happened in the form of an ice front between me and the mosque people, not least because they refused to comply with a desire to cancel a Ramadan celebration after the murder. For three to four months after this incident, I was a pariah in this neighborhood. They thought I had spoken negatively about their religion. But I did not have it. I do not mind Islam. As the closest neighbor to a mosque, I have learned to respect their views.

- But something also happened to this city. Rotterdam used to be a completely free city. Lazy – a little dirty. But a free city, good to live in. Especially for artists. But now everything is so controlled. There are police everywhere. They guard you when you park the car, will look inside it; have lots of id checks all the time. Even our rubbish has become a matter of total control. You must have a license to buy a bicycle… The hunt for possible bombs has become frantic.

- We live in fear all the time. Life has become something we destroy or defend. We are not creative anymore, not creative. We do not move on in life, but are stuck in a destructive reality.

A society that is made of glass. Chris Ripken uses this term. A robust society will allow people to live freely as long as they do not harm others. A robust society will place a high ceiling on reprisals. But society is no longer strong. And new elements are coming that erode freedom even more.

- There is a Christian rebirth out there, with a million people going to see the pope. These are gospel broadcasts on television. Religion comes, and the more religion, the less freedom. In the past, the church used to give artistic assignments to artists like me. Today we have a church that forbids everything.

- It has made me more careful. I'm not talking about religion anymore. No longer makes sculptures that have anything to do with it. Keeps me away from politics too. It is sad. But it is a reality.

- To what extent does this development have to do with Islam?

- There have been some problems along the way. Like for example when I made a mermaid with only breasts that I put on the outside here. It was a colorful case, made like a mosaic. It was meant as an inspiration into the neighborhood. I ended up having to take it back.

Having said that, I have never meant that Islam as such is the problem. It is not religion, or the presence of many different ethnic groups, that has led us into a situation where freedom of speech is curbed. It is the war in Iraq that has done it. It has made the confrontation harder, but also the debate more cowardly. When you watch the news broadcasts on Al Jazzera, you can not help but be shocked by the total difference in the angle of this war. There are two different perceptions of reality that collide here. And the two can never be reconciled.

- I'm not sure which picture is correct. But I know that this divergence does something to our society.

A society where people turn their faces away instead of engaging. That's what Chris Ripken sees around him. There is no problem with Islam. There is a problem with the whole community. The wind is blowing right now. Eastern European guest workers are seen as sub-humans. Generalizations abound. Social security is replaced by social insecurity. People are afraid of their jobs. The collective anxiety increases.

- In this neighborhood, politicians push the poor out to get the well-fed middle class in. It happens every day, little by little. But people no longer get involved. Violent processes take place below the surface without anyone protesting. The opposition is absent. Humans have fled into their own little lives.

- The social glue is gone. People live with the internet and get their ideas from completely different places. Western societies are in operation. The day the freethinkers and artists are gone; the day they do not have the framework to pursue criticism and opposition; that day we can all start praying, says Chris Ripken.

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