Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
By Ian Buruma
Penguin Press. 288 pp. $24.95

By now, almost every country in Western Europe has had its own shocking encounter with the radical Islamists in its midst, its “own 9/11.” For Holland, the event came on November 2, 2004, the day a Dutch-Moroccan by the name of Mohammed Bouyeri shot the iconoclastic documentary filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street, nearly cut off his head with a machete, and then calmly plunged a knife into the still-warm body, attaching a note that promised a similar fate for other “unbelievers.” The crime—the murder of a secular, rationalistic, cheerfully decadent Westerner at the hands of a death-worshipping, homegrown Islamic extremist—struck many observers as an ominous allegory of the threat facing the whole of Western Europe.

Ian Buruma would seem a good candidate to take on the urgent questions raised by the van Gogh case. Dutch-born and -raised, a long-time resident of Asia, and now a professor at Bard College, he has written extensively on world politics and non-Western cultures. Occidentalism, his most recent book (co-authored with Avishai Margalit), analyzed the West “in the eyes of its enemies,” providing a useful catalog of the images and tropes shared by the anti-liberal critics of modernity, from 19th-century Slavophiles to present-day Islamists. Murder in Amsterdam is Buruma’s account of a particularly vivid case of this ideology at work—and, less intentionally, an instance of the peculiar agnosticism with which certain segments of Western opinion have greeted such horrors.

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One of eight children of a former goat herder who emigrated from Morocco in the mid-1960’s, Mohammed Bouyeri grew up in a former working-class neighborhood of Amsterdam, now a “black” ghetto filled with Moroccans and Turks. Though his father struggled as a manual laborer, the family was hardly destitute, or especially pious. In high school, Bouyeri drank beer, smoked hashish, and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to pick up girls; he steered clear of the local mosque.

It was only in 2003 that the then twenty-something Bouyeri descended into the depths of radicalism. After encountering a fiery, Arabic-speaking preacher from Syria, he began downloading translations of the Qur’an and frequenting Amsterdam’s notorious El Tawheed Mosque. He spent long hours viewing Islamist websites; at the time of his arrest, he had a video disc of almost two-dozen beheadings, including that of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Bouyeri and other followers of the Syrian “sheik” soon began to establish shadowy links to Islamist groups in other European countries and hatched a plan to blow up the Dutch parliament—activities that attracted the attention of the authorities. Though the police finally arrested several members of the group, Bouyeri was not deemed especially dangerous and remained at liberty. Witnesses to his murder of van Gogh were stunned by his matter-of-fact coolness as he walked away from his victim. “I acted out of faith,” Bouyeri announced at his trial. His only regret appears to have been that in the shoot-out with police after the crime, he suffered only a minor leg wound rather than glorious martyrdom.

For Buruma, the irony in Bouyeri’s story is that Holland, perhaps more than any other European country, has prided itself on its tolerance and open-mindedness. The Enlightenment arrived early there, and foreigners, notably French Huguenots and Sephardic Jews, found a comfortable home in its stolidly mercantile, middle-class society. More recently, the Dutch were unruffled by the guest workers from Turkey and Morocco who began arriving after World War II. Surely a nation that so fully accommodated so many human types—Holland was among the first on the continent to introduce gay marriage and to do away with many pornography and drug laws—could include hard-working Muslim families. As Buruma describes his countrymen, the Dutch were entirely satisfied, “even smug,” with what they took to be their progressive, multicultural utopia.

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But, as Buruma suggests, Dutch broadmindedness held dangers of its own. For one thing, it blocked reasoned debate about the transformation of former working-class neighborhoods into “dish cities” (a name derived from the ubiquitous satellite dishes for TV reception): ghettos where second-generation Moroccan children were getting their news, and in many cases their spouses, from the old country and where alienation and crime were rising. In the wider Dutch culture, the same permissiveness fueled a strain of flamboyant self-dramatization and impudence whose confrontational power took a while to manifest itself. Thus, the eccentric politician Pim Fortuyn was both an icon of Dutch tolerance and its critic: a promiscuous and peacockish gay man, he became the unlikely spokesman for a populist backlash against immigrants until he was assassinated by an animal-rights activist in 2003.

Theo van Gogh was Fortuyn’s friend and—in his antagonism toward unassimilated immigrants and his willingness to offend—his cultural heir. An overweight, disheveled man with a noble Dutch pedigree (including the great painter and several World War II resistance fighters), van Gogh was a kind of intellectual media shock jock who took pleasure in taunting everyone. His favorite target was Muslims, whom he regularly called “goat-fuckers.” For Bouyeri, the final straw probably came with Submission, a notorious short film made for Dutch television by van Gogh and the Somali-born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali that featured quotations from the Qur’an superimposed on the bodies of otherwise naked veiled women.

Buruma interviews a large cast of contemporary Dutch characters about van Gogh’s murder and its meaning for Holland. Among them are “conservatives” like Afshin Ellian, an Iranian-born critic of Islamism and the European intellectuals who tolerate it; Frits Bolkestein, one-time head of the free-market VVD party, who bemoans the “lack of confidence in Western civilization”; and, in a long profile, van Gogh’s film partner Hirsi Ali, who has called for Western Muslims to bring a spirit of self-criticism to their religion. Before van Gogh’s murder, such voices rarely got a friendly hearing, but now Buruma finds even some on the Left who are beginning to question Holland’s multicultural “idyll.”

As for Bouyeri and his peers, Buruma sees alienation as the most compelling explanation for their radicalization. An outsider who never found his place in Dutch society, Bouyeri bristled over his family’s powerlessness to control his sister’s Westernized behavior and suffered repeated insults, in his mind, at the hands of the social-welfare bureaucracy. In Islam, Buruma writes, the disaffected Bouyeri found “his new identity, unassailable, secure, a snug shell that would protect him from all the hostile forces around him. It gave him a sense of power, of meaning, of Truth.”

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Buruma is refreshingly direct in recognizing the messianic nature of the Islamism that seduced Mohammed Bouyeri, and he cautions against comforting explanations for its appeal. “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,” he warns, “or a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.” He is also very good on the subject of Dutch culture. Not only does he make sense of the sometimes baffling politics of figures like Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, but he convincingly dissects the nation’s reluctance to recognize the dangers within its borders.

The Dutch have long considered themselves a moral breed apart. Did they not shelter Anne Frank, and was not their February 1941 workers’ strike against the deportation of the country’s Jews the only one of its kind in Nazi-occupied Europe? Though the young radicals of the 1960’s pointed out that more than 70 percent of the Jews in Holland had nevertheless met their deaths in concentration camps, the effect was only to reinforce the sense of Dutch exceptionalism: now they could congratulate themselves on their historical candor. In recent years, Buruma suggests, the Dutch have tended to think of all minorities as beleaguered Jews and their critics as little more than crypto-Nazis.

Buruma’s detached, ironic sophistication serves him well in describing his countrymen, but it gets the better of him in much of the rest of the book. Ever the thoughtful literary man, he makes clear that he has come to illuminate events likely to agitate less elevated souls. His favorite adjective for Bouyeri and his comrades in jihad is “confused.” And in this, Buruma insists, they are hardly alone. The followers of Pim Fortuyn are, similarly, “a confused people, afraid of being swamped by immigrants” and convinced that their leader “promised a way back to simpler times.”

In such passages, Buruma’s tone is so carefully urbane, his approach so exquisitely fair-minded, that he becomes an exemplar rather than an explicator of the boundless tolerance that has left the Dutch in such a fix. To maintain his impartiality, he hunts not just for signs of moderation in his Islamic extremists but for extremism in the West and its defenders. About Afshin Ellian’s encounter with the brutality of the Iranian revolution, Buruma remarks: “This has shaped—some might say warped—his view of Islamism ever since.” As for the anti-Islamist Hirsi Ali, she talks about the Enlightenment “with a spark of almost religious fervor in her eyes,” reminding Buruma of, no less, the jihadist Bouyeri—since they offer “two different visions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious.” Ending his book with a trip to the soccer stadium in Rotterdam, he sees in the loudly nationalistic crowd “the celebration of an imaginary community . . . no more real than a modern Dutch Muslim’s fantasy of the pure world of the Prophet.” “Both fantasies,” he concludes, in a perfect non-sequitur of moral equivalence, “contain the seeds of destruction.”

As Buruma rightly observes, “the only chance for a peaceful future is for European Islam to accommodate itself to liberal democracy.” In the meantime, though, there are difficult decisions confronting those who wish to preserve the continent’s democratic traditions. Should Holland deport inflammatory Islamist preachers? Should it be legal for Dutch families to import brides for their sons from Moroccan villages? Should the state continue to subsidize Islamic schools that teach hatred of the West and anti-Semitism? Buruma avoids such distasteful specifics. Meanwhile, as he equivocates, outspoken critics of radical Islam in Holland are being forced to go underground, to travel with armed guards, or (as in the case of Hirsi Ali, who has recently relocated to Washington) to leave the country altogether.

What are the “limits of tolerance” in today’s Europe? It is a question raised but not remotely answered by Murder in Amsterdam.

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