Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
reviewed by Joan Frawley Desmond
Theo van Gogh was a Dutch pundit who shattered taboos for sport. A man of apparent contradictions—anti-immigrant, openly homosexual, and nationalistic—he enjoyed bashing the precepts of Holland’s regime of Tolerance. No one escaped his sting—not the bureaucratic overseers of political correctness, not the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and certainly not the Muslims who found his incendiary attacks inexcusable.
In November 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-born son of Moroccan immigrants, shot him dead as he bicycled down an Amsterdam street. Bouyeri was angered by Possession, a film Van Gogh made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali—a Somali-born Member of Parliament, author, and opponent of Islamic orthodoxy—in which phrases from the Koran are projected onto the skin of naked, abused women.
Van Gogh’s death triggered an orgy of national soul-searching that contributed to the defeat of the European Constitution. The aftershocks intrigued Ian Buruma, the Dutch-born journalist and author whose recent books include Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle 1853–1964, and Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. Now living in New York, he is the Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College.
Buruma returned to Holland, where he talked with Hirsi Ali, Van Gogh’s friends, and peers of Mohammed Bouyeri. Though by no means his best book, Murder in Amsterdam offers a microcosm of a troubled European society stumbling toward a multicultural future.
The author is a sharp observer of cultural blind spots. His portraits illustrate the clash between the Muslim immigrants’ conflicted and often self-defeating struggle for survival and the mainstream’s complacent disregard for its own institutions.
Yet he has blind spots of his own. In previous works, such as his 1994 book, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and in Japan, he advocated the disentanglement of religion from politics as the best way to secure vital democracies and resist future totalitarian threats. The Netherlands, once a deeply religious nation, embraced this nostrum decades ago.
The heart of the problem is his refusal to engage the Christian faith’s decisive impact on the evolution of the Dutch nation up to the mid-twentieth century. His lack of interest in such matters renders his cultural analysis incomplete, and potential solutions—the revitalization of Holland’s Christian churches, for example—go unexamined.
The author’s difficulty with Christianity and the public role of organized religion is nothing new, but it is a little surprising that he hasn’t refined his thinking over the years. In arguing his case for a secularized politics, one that views faith as an opponent of reason, he never clearly distinguishes between religion and ideology, or between Judeo-Christian political philosophy and the social teaching of other belief systems.
Perhaps, like many progressive Europeans, he believes that Christianity in the West lost credibility after failing to halt Hitler’s Final Solution. The subsequent role of Christianity in the pro-democracy movement and the collapse of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe does not seem to have registered with him.
Almost half of Amsterdam’s residents are foreign-born, and demographers predict that the majority of teens will be Muslim within a few decades. The Netherlands has welcomed successive waves of immigrants, and over time working-class neighborhoods have been transformed into “dish cities” that allow alienated residents to stay connected, through satellite television and the Internet, to life back home.
While the first generation worked hard but kept to themselves, their offspring bounce between two cultures. Some are paralyzed by the challenge of maintaining their belief in Islam while discarding unenlightened social customs.
In the same period, the once deeply Christian Netherlands has embraced a secularized politics. The debate provoked by Van Gogh’s murder suggests that the decline of faith-inspired politics has weakened—not strengthened—the nation’s ability to form a consensus on its ethos and telos, what legal scholar J. H. H. Weiler calls “the cultural foundations and aspirations of a given political community.”
Buruma’s new work shows that the rejection of the transcendent origins of political freedoms—as seen in his homeland’s repudiation of Christian faith and moral absolutes, typified in the legalization of euthanasia—complicates the task of fostering a commitment to the defense of civil liberties: Now that “truth” is defined as subjective, as simply a social construct, who can say whether Van Gogh or Bouyeri is truly at fault?
Furthermore, the author acknowledges—even satirizes—the shallow character of Holland’s new collective expressions of national unity. The problem is symbolized by the elevation of ersatz “martyrs”—like Van Gogh and the anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002—to satisfy the popular hunger for messianic figures.
The quirky, secular sensibility of public figures like Van Gogh bemuses, and occasionally antagonizes, Muslim immigrants seeking a sense of purpose in their adopted home. If there is nothing truly sacred, how and why should a Muslim newcomer make peace with his adopted country? Why not change it, rather than be changed by it?
Indeed, the most disturbing vision of the future that Buruma presents is of two opposing forces struggling for dominance. Stage left: the Dutch elite’s embrace of a politics purified of the transcendent. Stage right: the radical Muslim’s embrace of a politics dominated by Islam—a kind of utopia—achieved through the obliteration of free institutions that permit dissent and fuel temptation.
Understandably, the threat posed by Islamic radicalism stirs up strong emotions among the Dutch, who once celebrated their nation as the “most perfectly evolved playground of multicultural utopianism.” And Buruma is at his best when describing the reaction of privileged libertines who have enjoyed decades of sexual license only to confront a new wave of faith-inspired morality—this time from Islam.
Pim Fortuyn, a cradle Catholic and former Social Democrat, embraced the nationalist cause after immigrant youths attacked the gay bar he frequented in Rotterdam. “I have no desire,” he retorted in an interview, “to go through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again.”
Van Gogh, for his part, clung to “free-spirited anarchism.” Heedless of Muslim anger, he remained wedded to a life of “humor and cabaret . . . where it was possible . . . to offend people without the fear of violence.”
While Van Gogh provoked without discrimination, Fortuyn encouraged his countrymen to reclaim a Holland long past. The vision he conjured up was more sentimental, in Buruma’s view, than substantive.
Thus, when Fortuyn died, his funeral became a lightening rod for frustrated dreams and maudlin testimonials. His two spaniels led the surreal funeral cortege and occupied seats of honor during the funeral Mass at Laurentius and Elizabeth Cathedral. Tens of thousands of admirers screamed their devotion and called Fortuyn their “savior.” A 2004 poll identified the late politician as the most important figure in Dutch history.
But the nostalgia for an outgrown playground is matched by a more sober, countervailing vision advanced by conservatives who assert that the nation’s ethos of multicultural tolerance has backfired and that new immigrants approach the state as a “soft touch.” Such critics dismiss multiculturalism as little more than “sheer indifference, bred by a lack of confidence in values and institutions that needed to be defended.” America’s tough-love methods would serve better, they believe.
These conservatives call for “Enlightenment values,” which Buruma interprets as “partly a revolt against a revolt.”
Buruma would seem to agree with the substance of the conservatives’ new position while questioning the purity of their motives. But traditionalists elsewhere will challenge the efficacy of this last-ditch effort to bolster the legitimacy of Dutch institutions, blaming the Enlightenment for the moral relativism and individualism that have made the achievement of a political consensus all the more elusive.
A true child of the Enlightenment, Buruma argues in one of the book’s few passages on the claims of religion and the rights of believers: “In modern society, religious orthodoxy, though by definition closed to reasonable argument, is often a choice. And as such it should be accepted, as long as the choice is not foisted on others.”
He wants to embrace an optimistic vision of the future articulated by the French expert on Islam Olivier Roy, who argues that the full inclusion of orthodox Muslims on the Continent will make the faith a “European religion,” thus exorcising its demons.
Yet one moderate Muslim tells the author he’d welcome Sharia law in Holland. If Islam becomes the dominant faith in Holland, it seems likely that “choice” won’t be much protection against the inevitable attacks on the religious freedom of the Christian minority—and on many other freedoms as well.
Buruma places his faith in the energy and courage of human rights activists like Hirsi Ali, who suffered death threats and traveled with armed guards in the Netherlands. But a postscript notes that Hirsi Ali, who abandoned Islam upon reading her Dutch boyfriend’s copy of the Atheist Manifesto, recently left Holland after being threatened with deportation.
The reader, too, is heartened by Hirsi Ali’s stubborn crusade to reform Islam and establish a new beachhead for civil liberties. But one finishes this book with the impression that Holland’s culture is “grounded not so much in tolerance as in acquiescence,” to paraphrase Marcello Pera’s remarks in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.
The “peaceful greenness” of this verdant land still enthralls Buruma, the exile, as it does any visitor. But in his book we meet no one with the conviction to restore confidence in its great heritage.
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