by Peter Byrne
A Book Review
Buruma, Ian: Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, U.K.: Atlantic Books, London, 2006, ISBN10 1843543192, ISBN13 978184354 3190, pp. 278. U.S.: The Penguin Press, N.Y., 2006, ISBN 9781594201080, pp. 288.
(Swans - March 12, 2007) The Netherlands still felt shock waves from the assassination of the politician Pim Fortuyn that took place two years before. Then, on November 2, 2004, Theo van Gogh, filmmaker and thuggish journalist, was murdered in Amsterdam. His killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, objected to an eleven-minute film van Gogh had made of a script by Hirsi Ali Somali, an asylum seeker and anti-Islam activist.
Ian Buruma sets out to put these actors and their transgressions in context. He's well suited for the task. A cosmopolitan Dutchman who writes in English, he returns home from years of teaching and writing in the Far East and the United States to delve among his roots.
Anyone moving around Europe over the last decade will know that immigration is something that troubles citizens from Finland to Sicily. Europeans have an atavistic belief that their particular national way of life constitutes a treasure. It's a mindset that not only makes change of any sort laborious, but also casts immigrants in the role of despoilers of a precious heritage. Ideally natives would prefer new arrivals to assimilate overnight and be identical to them in the morning. The degree that immigrants remain different constitutes their danger quotient. The unease won't go away no matter how often reasonable men repeat that Europe with its falling birth rate needs foreign labor to maintain its prosperity and welfare system.
Political parties in all European countries have tapped into the fear of immigrants. But voices of tolerance have also been heard in every country. The balance differs in each case. The Netherlands more than elsewhere had kept to a policy of openness. It liked to think it continued the 17th century role as beacon of the Enlightenment. The readjustment of mores in the 1960s reinforced this tradition. Multiculturalism or patience with and respect for the unassimilated became a national strategy. Amsterdam assumed a special role as the tolerant city par excellence in Europe's arguably most tolerant country.
September 11, 2001 opened the door to doubts. The reticence of Muslims in Europe in condemning terrorism gave pause. On March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid that killed nearly two hundred were largely the work of locally based Muslims. On Nov. 2, 2004 a Dutch born Muslim invoking the Koran murdered Theo van Gogh. On July 7, 2005 British Muslims blew up three underground trains and a bus in Central London, causing fifty-six deaths. The Dutch public suddenly began to ask how many of their immigrants were Muslims and what exactly was going on in their heads. In fact 5.4 per cent of the population of the Netherlands was Muslim in 2005. In six years the three largest cities in the country will have Muslim majorities.
Ian Buruma gives us one Dutchman's view of the characters in the drama that began with the murder in Amsterdam of Pim Fortuyn on May 6, 2002 and the revision of national opinion that followed. Fortuyn's killer was pure Dutch and an animal rights activist. He was not only disgruntled over the politician's lack of sympathy for his agenda, but accused him of "arrogance," "vanity," and neglect of the humble. The victim was a proud and flamboyant homosexual, "a shaven-head dandy" that his supporters called "the divine baldy."
More important, Fortuyn was a populist who had founded his own successful party, the L.P.F. It opposed bureaucracy, the leftist-liberal consensus, and immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Initially support had come from nouveau riche businessmen who like Fortuyn felt locked out of the Dutch establishment. Buruma explains these practical businessmen's lack of pragmatism in opposing immigration. They shared a widespread beneath-the-surface hatred in the Netherlands for Turks and Moroccans that undercut self-interest.
In one of his newspaper columns, Fortuyn reproved immigrants: "How dare you! This is our country, and if you can't conform, you should get the hell out, back to your own country and culture (page 67)." Buruma sees the theatrical Fortuyn as an outsider seeking to be part of a nostalgic Netherlands that never existed, an ideal family, not one class, but "one people, one country, one society." His nostalgia differed from Haider's hankering in Austria for the Nazi past and Le Pen's in France for the war in Algeria.
The continued undermining of Dutch multiculturalism can be traced in the career of Theo van Gogh. If Fortuyn had been a political jester, van Gogh was a jester tout court who devoted himself full time to lurid provocation. He may well have exemplified what Buruma sees as a strong drive in the Dutch, deriving from Calvinism, never to hold their tongue out of prudence. The child of a well-off family, van Gogh early showed signs of being a dedicated spoilsport with a taste for the scatological. As a wild teenager he adored Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. When he submitted blatantly sadistic work for entry to the Film Academy, he was advised to see a psychiatrist. His first film in 1981 was in the same vein. He would make two dozen more, achieving some repute for them within the Netherlands. Generally he was a slip-shod artisan but good with actors; his strong suit was his boldness.
Buruma calls van Gogh a child of the 1960s already riding the return of the pendulum. Thus he displayed a crude anti-Semitism. He would be challenged in court not only by Jews but by Christians who were shocked by his reference to Christ as the "rotten fish from Nazareth." He abused ex-friends, celebrities, and politicians, finally settling on Muslims as his prime target. His aim seems to have been to gain attention and he could never get enough of it. In the confines of his small country, he become a celebrity in his own right, less for his films than for his TV appearances and outpourings in the press, and on the radio and Internet. He broke taboos for a living.
Van Gogh, who delighted in referring to Muslims as "goat fuckers," went a step farther when he made Submission. This eleven-minute film was scripted by a young woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the best-known enemy of Islam in the Netherlands. Hirsi Ali had been born a Muslim in Somalia to a dissident father at odds with the country's dictator, not with Islam. The family moved from country to country. In Kenya Hirsi Ali flirted with fundamentalism but found it conflicted with her needs as an individual. In 1992 when her father ordered her to Canada for an arranged marriage, she rebelled and entered the Netherlands as a political refugee. By 2003 she had become a notorious figure in the country, a deadly serious activist, a zealot, not a jester. A beautiful woman, she was a regular on TV talk shows. She had entered parliament for the Liberal Party and never wearied of haranguing Muslim victims of domestic violence and her parliamentary colleagues. She hammered at her message that the wellspring of violent abuse in Islam lay in the Koran itself. The Dutch were implored to defend themselves against Islam in their midst.
Submission pictures naked women with texts of the Koran or thumbnail descriptions of their predicament projected on their bodies. The theme is subjection to males and Allah. One woman bearing wounds has been flogged for fornication. Another has been raped by an unwanted husband. A third has been impregnated by an uncle and waits to be murdered by her father.
Always the clown, van Gogh had wanted the film to be a comedy. But Hirsi Ali insisted on seriousness. She meant to shock Muslims into a discussion that would lead to reform. The sole laughter that ensued was the kind that follows a fiasco. Only the tiny audience of a highbrow TV show saw the film to begin with. The scandal among Muslims would come afterwards through hearsay.
In this limited context, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was no Voltaire. For Voltaire had flung his insults at the Catholic Church, one of the two most powerful institutions of eighteen-century France, while Ayaan risked offending only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe (page 179).
Mohammed Bouyeri's vulnerability was typical of second-generation immigrants. His father had arrived from the Rif Mountains in 1965 with a village religious background that knew nothing of fundamentalism. He would end up washing dishes for a living. Young Mohammed came from a big family with limited means. But he graduated from high school and was not unlike other Dutch-born Moroccans. He drank beer, smoked dope, thought of going on with his education, and even received a scholarship. He was never poor, rarely went to the mosque, and was moderately left wing.
Here the explanation that Buruma favors kicks in. Dutch Moroccan youth have a particular problem dealing with disappointment. Finding their access to mainstream society blocked can cause them deep resentment. Rejection can make them retreat into fantasies of "tribal honor and religious rectitude (page 201)."
Bouyeri acquired a police record in a coffee-house brawl. He met disappointment when his plans for the reorganization of a youth club fell through and when the government's project to renovate the family apartment never materialized. His mother died. He became disillusioned with his father for failing to keep his seventeen-year-old sister under control. When Bouyeri fought with her boyfriend, he was arrested for the first time. In a second fight with the same boy, he threatened a policeman with a knife, was arrested again and sent to jail for twelve weeks.
At this point the honor-and-rectitude exit offered a way out of a downward spiral. Bouyeri met an illegal immigrant from Morocco named Nouradine who presented him to Mohammed Radwan Alissa, a radical Muslim preacher on the run from Assad's Syria. Bouyeri was soon part of a group with subversive designs. The expert witness at his trial would term him "an increasingly disturbed young man whose conversion to jihadism took place over little more than one year (page 193)." To start with, he rejected "Western values"; soon he added the democratic state and its legal institutions; then he called for global jihad against democracy; in the end he urged violence against anyone who insulted Islam or the Prophet. Since Bouyeri knew little Arabic he had trouble following Radwan Alissa's preaching and had to download jihadi texts from the Internet in English translations. In February 2004 the twenty-six-year-old could write: "To withdraw from infidels means hating them, being their enemy, being revolted by them, loathing them, and fighting them (page 212)." You can feel a loser puffing up like a frog.
On November 2 Bouyeri donned his raincoat and prayer hat, got on his bicycle, and went to murder Theo van Gogh. He shot him in the stomach first; then a couple of times more. He cut his throat with a machete that he left stuck in his chest. Beside it he attached a letter with a smaller knife. He kicked the body hard and walked into a park to engage in a shoot out with the police. His sentence would be life imprisonment without parole.
The letter was not addressed to van Gogh, but to Hirsi Ali. It called her an apostate who would be destroyed along with America, Europe, and much else. The Dutch police protected Hirsi Ali until she went to live in the United States in September 2006. Her departure followed the discovery by a fellow member of parliament of an irregularity on her 1992 entry form. She hadn't mentioned her forced marriage, but simply claimed political asylum. It carried more weight with the Dutch authorities.
Murder in Amsterdam is an expanded New Yorker article. This may be why we never seem to finish with a subject or a personage. They turn up again, often not to have anything new said about them. Generally Buruma prefers circling to going forward on a beeline. His reported conversations with a variety of figures enrich the book, as does his close reading of the very particular Dutch situation. But while he's emphatic enough on generalities like lingering national guilt over WWII or Dutch traits that spring from Calvinism, his stance on the situation immediately under discussion is not always clear. He treads so carefully that following him doesn't always lead the reader to a conclusion.
Perhaps that's why Buruma's position in the book has been so grossly misinterpreted. A case in point is the recent exchange of ideas in signandsight.com. (See Swans.com, Letters to the Editor of February 12, 2007.) Pascal Bruckner and Paul Cliteur, both "clash of civilization" fear mongers, charge Buruma with being a postmodern relativist, a nihilist traitor to Western values who has sold out to a discredited multiculturalism. In the bargain, he's portrayed as an enemy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Though a native of The Hague, Buruma is also accused of being an Anglo-Saxon, a serious crime on the Left Bank.)
In fact, Murder in Amsterdam urges our multiculturalists to stop being indifferent and to become attentive to just how immigrants can be helped to integrate. As to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Buruma, unlike Bruckner and Cliteur, actually had long conversations with her. His book is full of sympathy in her regard. However, he believes that her shock tactics in waging a frontal war on the sacred text of a billion and a half Muslims will not make for peaceful living in cities like Amsterdam and Birmingham. His nuanced view of Hirsi Ali can be seen in Buruma's review of her autobiography Infidel in the New York Times of March 4 (Book Review, p. 14).
Significant in this respect is a TV program described by Buruma (pages 182-3). Hirsi Ali, who had often worked with battered Muslim wives and daughters, showed Submission in one of the secret shelters set up for them. Four victims viewed the film and then discussed it with the scriptwriter. They found the use of naked women deliberately offensive. One of them said that women were indeed oppressed, but that culture and education were at fault, not the Koran. Another objected, "You're just insulting us. My faith is what strengthened me. That's how I came to realize that my situation at home was wrong." No steps toward integration were taken that evening.
Following the publication of Murder in Amsterdam, at the time of the Dutch parliamentary elections of November 2006, Buruma spoke out clearly in an interview that appeared in the Italian daily La Repubblica of November 23. He said Bouyeri's murder of Theo van Gogh in the name of Islam destroyed at a stroke the Dutch public's faith in the multicultural model. People now felt that immigrants should be forced to integrate and have their religion supervised. Their acceptance of Dutch standards would stop violence and put paid to the peril of fundamentalism.
Buruma rejects this solution that he sees as the fruit of panic. He points out that the first Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands in the 1960s brought no extremist ideas. The project of waging holy war against the West belongs to a contemporary revolutionary movement born of global society. Blathering about the Enlightenment can't defeat it. The tiny number of violent jihadis amongst the immigrant population must simply be isolated and dealt with. While it's desirable that immigrants learn Dutch and have some knowledge of the constitution, alienating the peaceful and moderate Muslim majority by a generalized attack on Islam bodes no good for the future of a country that by 2050 will be composed of a majority of former immigrants. Calvinists or not, free speech ought to be tempered by the good sense of avoiding gratuitous offense.
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