Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, by Ian Buruma (Penguin Press, 288 pp., $24.95)

Whatever the other effects of the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh, they have certainly raised the Dutch profile in the global press. A country whose stability, prosperity, and tolerantly pragmatic response to social problems long raised a yawn of ennui among newspaper editors suddenly found itself not only at the forefront of the news but also as emblematic of all the problems of the modern, complex, interdependent, and highly confused world. The Netherlands was suddenly in the avant-garde of the apocalypse, experiencing the coming clash of civilizations. Not since the seventeenth century had Holland been so important.

Ian Buruma seems uniquely placed to explain the Dutch situation to the rest of the world. He is a prolific writer who lived the first half of his life in Holland. Completely fluent in Dutch, he knows his country’s history but has also lived in many other nations and therefore can see his own with an outsider’s, as well as an insider’s, eye. Above all, he focuses on the influence of recent history, and how it is taught and remembered, upon present politics. For example, he wrote a book comparing the ways in which Germany and Japan (both of whose languages he speaks) have dealt with their war records.

The recent Dutch past hampers them in responding to Islamic extremism. The Dutch war record is not glorious: a greater proportion of Dutch Jews wound up deported and killed during the German occupation than of any other Western European country’s. Buruma does not mention that the Dutch also contributed more men to the SS than most other occupied nations. No sooner was the occupation over, moreover, than they engaged in a brutal but hopeless war to retain the East Indies as a colonial possession.

A bad conscience, then, bubbled under the calm, prosperous surface of Dutch life, waiting to emerge at precisely the wrong moment—when Dutch society faced the genuine challenge of Islamic extremism among large numbers of Moroccan immigrants. Frankness then became impossible, and intellectuals drew false analogies between anti-Islamist opinion and the anti-Semitism that had led to the inglorious war record. The Dutch then had to fight with at least one, and sometimes two, hands tied behind their back.

Where self-censorship exists on a large scale, eventually a maverick will arise who breaks the collective silence, often in a rather vulgar and unattractive way. Theo Van Gogh was such a maverick. Coming from a secure background in Holland’s haute bourgeoisie, he felt privileged and safe enough to mock, deride, and insult his society’s conventions: indeed, from an early age, no doubt because of inherent temperament, he felt compelled to do so. For example, he started a scatological magazine, The Dirty Paper, at his primary school. He seems to have come into the world with a desire to shock and get seen doing so.

He thought he was a licensed jester. His ability to shock depended, of course, upon the persistence in Dutch society of the Calvinist mentality of purse-lipped moralism, now as frequently employed against those who dare suggest that the rank, and deeply ideological, hedonism of Amsterdam is not only unattractive but morally reprehensible as against those, such as fornicators, traditionally regarded as sinners. Scratch a Dutch liberal, and you will find a Calvinist moralist not far beneath the surface.

This Calvinism, however, was tolerant to the extent that it did not prescribe slaughter in the streets for those deemed to have insulted it. Its worst sanction was disapproval—precisely what Van Gogh sought. Van Gogh hid under so many layers of rather crude irony that it became impossible to know what he really believed, if anything; and it was beyond his comprehension that anyone would take anything so seriously, or perhaps literally is a better word, as to kill for it.

Van Gogh could be funny. For example, at one public forum, he remarked on his surprise that an Islamist who was taking part in the discussion needed the protection not only of Allah but of bodyguards as well. There may be disagreement about the socio-cultural and psychological roots of Islamism, but a sense of humor certainly isn’t among them. The Islamist left the forum in a rage, with Van Gogh exclaiming, “Allah knows best! Allah knows best!”

Buruma is good at depicting the crosscurrents of Dutch society. Its political class is—or at least until recently was—a self-selected elite, whose members sought office without ever wishing to change policies. It required its members to be gray and featureless, without flamboyance or ostentation: observing and listening to one ex–prime minister, for example, I thought I was seeing a better-than-averagely-dressed member of an eastern European politburo. He spoke fluently but said nothing; his fleshy face suggested years of official luncheons and dinners in banqueting halls without natural light; I doubt that he had paid for a sandwich for decades.

Meanwhile, back in le pays réel, pressures and discontents have mounted. The original idea of Dutch employers was that Moroccan men from desperately poor villages would come for a time to provide cheap labor (they liked their immigrants poor and illiterate, because they would be easier to control and less likely to organize and cause trouble), and then go home again once the sweeping or assembling or whatever menial task they were to perform was done. Instead, the men stayed and their families joined them. The assumption was that they would eventually assimilate, once they perceived the full beauty of the Dutch way of life.

The native Dutch population increased arithmetically, that of the immigrants geometrically, until whole neighborhoods, usually of public housing, became in effect Moroccan colonies. As Marx might have put it, the colonizers found themselves colonized.

Three factors retarded the newcomers’ integration into Dutch society. The first was a social security system that allowed large numbers of people to subsist without working and therefore without engagement in the wider society, so that the creation of mental ghettoes soon followed the creation of physical ones; the second was the ideology of multiculturalism, which was born of a combination of liberal guilt and indifference to the real fate of immigrants; and the third was the permission given to second generation immigrants to seek their spouses back in Morocco, so that the most retrograde aspects of their parents’ native culture could survive.

Interestingly, Dutch-Moroccan young men seek sexual liaisons with European-Dutch girls, whom they regard as being “easy in the sexual sense,” but prefer Moroccan women (from Morocco) as wives. Village girls, they believe, are compliant, undemanding, obedient, and easily cowed. When you are at the bottom of the social pile, domination of women can seem particularly important and rewarding, and it compensates for all manner of other humiliations. Unfortunately, it is a primitive compensation that inhibits genuine social advance.

Buruma does not disguise from us the unattractive side of a modern and extremely liberal western society such as Holland’s. Returning to live a few months in Amsterdam, he stays in a house in the famous, or infamous, red-light district:

The virtually naked “window prostitutes,” from all the poor countries in the world, pose in their dimly lit rooms along the canal, in old houses decorated with gracefully carved seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gables and neon signs offering live sex shows. It is easier in that part of town to buy a large electric dildo than a newspaper.

This is not attractive, to say the least; and it is hardly surprising that some reflective young men, with the normal frustrations of youth as well as the difficulties of being not fully at ease in either society, Dutch or Moroccan, turn to a doctrine that seems to them to solve all social and personal problems at once and gives them besides a powerful sense of mission and purpose.

Buruma is quite clear about the absurdity of Islamism as a doctrine. Its intellectual nullity is patent. He lets Islamists and their sympathizers speak for themselves, and perhaps the most startling moment comes when one of his interlocutors, by no means the most stupid, objects to the slaying of Van Gogh because it was done during Ramadan.

However, he is much less clear about what part Islam itself plays in the situation. The subtitle of the book leads us to expect an answer as to whether Islam is now compatible with liberal democracy and the kind of religious tolerance that we took for granted until recently.

Optimists might point to India, for example, which has the second largest population of Muslims in the world, but which has maintained the highest standards of democratic freedom of any country in the Third World. However, pessimists might reply that it is the memory and very real threat of intercommunal violence, from which the Muslims must emerge the overall losers because they are so much in the minority, that keeps freedom alive in India and Muslims loyal to, or at least compliant with, the democratic order. If they scented weakness in the Indian state, they—or rather the Islamists among them—would go on the offensive.

You sense reluctance on the author’s part to tackle the really difficult questions, for fear of being too offensive. He is so judicious that he arrives at no judgment. At the book’s end we are no nearer knowing what the limits of tolerance are or should be than we were at the beginning. For instance, the author treats Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch-Somali woman who made the offending film, Submission, with Van Gogh and now lives under permanent threat of death, with a certain disdain, as if he fears to identify with anyone too closely, and he underscores her privileged background, as if it somehow vitiated her argument that Islam has at the heart of its doctrine and way of seeing the world the justification for oppression and intolerance. This is not to say that all Muslims are oppressive or intolerant, any more than that all people of democratic or egalitarian sentiment treat their social inferiors with deep respect. Hirsi Ali may be wrong in what she says, but it is important to prove her wrong, not merely mildly deprecate her as the scion of privilege and a person given by temperament to extreme positions.

The smell of political correctness wafts gently through the book. We read, for example, that all doctrines have the potential for violent extremism. Is this really true? Quakerism, for example? Does one really expect Christian Scientists to turn politically violent after reading Mary Baker Eddy? On another occasion, Buruma permits a young man of Moroccan origin, who turned out badly though his two brothers did well, to explain without challenge his persistent failure in life, despite his intelligence and obvious ability, by reference to discrimination. Why should he have faced such incapacitating discrimination, and not his two successful brothers? It is possible, of course, that a reason exists, but Buruma does not seek it out.

That said, his book is highly readable, and it is not as if readers of English are well-supplied with books about the cultural and political situation of Holland. Since both Holland and Belgium are now very important, not perhaps in the statistical sense, but in a symbolic sense, since both experience with particular acuteness pan-European problems, this book is welcome. I would have preferred it to be harder-edged, but perhaps that is because I have the makings of a fanatic.


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