Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
By Ian Buruma (Atlantic Books 256pp £12.99)
Assimilation, integration, tolerance and intolerance have become challenging terrain and writing about them illuminatingly requires insight, intellectual rigour, a willingness to confront tough questions and the sensitivity, humility and humanity to address them from more than one angle. This is no place for bigots or bores, be they radical Muslim preachers or old-fashioned racists.
Ian Buruma is just the man for the job. He returns to his native Holland in the aftermath of the horrifying murder of the controversialist Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh and observes the country as something of an outsider himself, having left in 1975. He now lives in New York.
Most of us have a notion of Holland as the multiculturalist’s dream – a laissez-faire, non-judgemental world of marijuana-filled coffee shops and highly sexed young men and women, a place where anything goes. However, Buruma exposes a country that is re-evaluating its tolerant mores as a matter of urgency and pondering the calamitous lack of integration of its immigrant community of Dutch Turks and Moroccans.
The murder of van Gogh on 2 November 2004 stunned Holland. His cold-blooded shooting in Amsterdam was bad enough. The fact that his killer, a disaffected Muslim called Mohammed Bouyeri, calmly proceeded to behead the corpse and pin a note to it warning that the Somali-born film-maker Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be next only made it more chilling. What had gone wrong with the Dutch model?
The question is implicit throughout the book and Buruma answers it in many ways. It is lazy and inaccurate, he would argue, to assert that Islam is incompatible with secular Western democracies. If Islam per se is a threat to our way of life, then it follows that all Muslims are so. This is patently untrue.
He dismisses the often voiced notion that if only America were to bang Palestinian and Israeli heads together and enforce a just settlement, if only it would withdraw its troops from Iraq, radical Islam would shut up shop and go away. ‘It is unlikely … that those who want God’s kingdom on earth are going to be satisfied just with a better deal for the Palestinians, or a US withdrawal from Iraq,’ he says. It is difficult to disagree, particularly when our opponents are so admirably straightforward in outlining their own vision. As they say, they are not looking to change Western society. They are bent on destroying it.
Theo van Gogh and Hirsi Ali couldn’t stomach this, nor the feeble way with which the mealy-mouthed multiculturalists continued to preach their gospel. Buruma argues that post-war guilt, centred on collaboration with the Nazis and the ensuing massacre of much of Holland’s Jewish population, led to pieties and platitudes which resisted any criticism of multiculturalism. ‘To see massive immigration as a problem at all was, in respectable circles, worse than bad taste; it was like questioning the European ideal or racial equality.’
Van Gogh revelled in causing offence – to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Buruma offers us a revealing and disturbing portrait of this compulsive publicity-seeker, placing him at the heart of the Dutch literary tradition of scheldkritieken or ‘abusive criticism’. Hence an article in which he wrote that a rival film-maker who was Jewish ‘could only satisfy his wife by wrapping barbed wire around his penis and crying “Auschwitz!” when he came’. Hence Muslims were ‘goat-fuckers’. And so it went on. As Buruma notes, it was a perverse irony that the man who was so consumed by the urge to warn his countrymen of the sheer menace of Islam should so signally fail to appreciate the personal dangers attendant on such remarks and publicised positions.
Buruma’s investigations lead him to some unsettling findings. For example, second-generation Moroccan men in Holland are ten times more likely to suffer from schizophrenia than native Dutchmen from the same economic background. Many are caught between two worlds they increasingly polarise, Islam and the West, tempted and simultaneously disgusted by the ‘easy’ Dutch women who surround them. Rage, disillusionment, hatred and violence are always lurking, waiting to be exploited by an opportunist preacher here and there.
Buruma’s Americo-Dutch perspective on all this is unusually compelling. He shrinks from dogma of any kind and advances arguments that are measured, informed, thoughtful and highly lucid. ‘Europeans are proud of their welfare states, but they were not designed to absorb large numbers of immigrants,’ he writes. ‘Immigrants appear to fare better in the harsher system of the United States, where there is less temptation to milk the state. The necessity to fend for oneself encourages a kind of tough integration.’
Theo van Gogh’s collaboration with Hirsi Ali on her film Submission proved fatal. In it, verses from the Koran are projected onto the bodies of naked women, texts that call for the submission of women to fathers, brothers, husbands and, above all, to Allah. The provocation was deliberate and absolute. Hence the furious reaction from Muslims, as in the rap number which begins:
Fuck Hirsi Ali Somali
Just two months in Holland, and already so knowing
Cancer whore, shit stain, I’ll smash your face…
Buruma tells the story of the main protagonists of this unhappy tale, delving into the pasts of van Gogh, Hirsi Ali, Mohammed Bouyeri and the politician Pim Fortuyn to craft a narrative so pacy it has you wondering whether you are reading a Frederick Forsyth thriller. Holland is a country whose faith in resolving conflicting views and interests is so fundamental that life there can veer into stultifying provincial boredom, but it nevertheless offers an interesting laboratory in which to observe the Muslim minority question in Europe.
In Holland, it seems, many Muslims are radicalised through failure, discrimination, lack of opportunity. This is certainly interesting, but does not shed light on the broader observation that many Muslim terrorists these days are smiling middle-class professionals. That is not a point that will interest Dutch policymakers too much, given the different priorities they have. Ian Buruma’s powerful and remarkable book will surely fly off the shelves in Holland, but it deserves a far, far wider audience than that.