Murder in Amsterdam: Review

Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

by Ian Buruma


Theo van Gogh was a strange figure in Dutch politics. He would have been seen as something of a loose cannon from an outside perspective, and his murder in 2004 by an Islamic extremist looked like little more than a violent response to his “blasphemous” anti-Islamic provocations, in particular the short film Submission he made with activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It was to her that the letter pinned by the assassin, Mohammed Bouyeri, to Van Gogh’s body, was addressed. In Submission, Qur’anic texts are projected on to the naked bodies of young women as a metaphor of Islam’s abuse of women.

It is Ian Buruma’s achievement to unpack the social and political context of the murder, and to show how avowedly liberal Holland is struggling to deal with the implications of having harboured many people whose values fundamentally contradict the famous ethos of Dutch tolerance. In a detailed and nuanced account, he demonstrates that Holland is neither as liberal as it seems — and nor is the case of Van Gogh’s death as simple as theocratic extremism versus Western liberalism.

Buruma (who grew up in the same place Van Gogh did, and at the same time) traces Van Gogh’s life and work, illuminating his particular position in this specific society, which is much more complex than his being simply an anti-Islamic conservative. Like the gay “trickster” who almost reached the prime-ministership, Pim Fortuyn (who was murdered two years before him), Van Gogh took the role of clownish provocateur. He was “squarely in the tradition of abusive criticism … He was, in his own words, the ‘village idiot’, the fat jester with a licence to tell the truth.”

Under the rather bland façade of Dutch tolerance, as Buruma pictures it, lies a conservative political system dominated by the class of regenten, and within an outwardly peaceful society are the fault lines of inequity, a situation particularly acute for immigrants. For many of those immigrants, especially those from a tradition such as Islam, the experience of finding a home in Holland is not, it seems, one of finally finding a tolerant and tolerable home, but of alienation and despair.

By contrast, Buruma tracks the activities of Hirsi Ali, and Murder in Amsterdam is as much about her as it is about Van Gogh and Fortuyn. Born in Somalia, she came to Holland as a political refugee and, taking advantage of the relative openness of that society, began to campaign stridently against the strictures of an Islam that had oppressed her. It wasn’t so much that people objected to what she had to say (many would have felt the same), but to the way she said it, to her shock tactics — and her willingness to rock the boat. (She now lives in the United States.)

For a TV programme, Hirsi Ali interrogated pupils at an Islamic school about whether their first allegiance was to Islam or the Dutch Constitution. When she got the predictable answer (the former) she was accused by the regenten of intolerance akin to Nazism. And so, oddly, the Dutch belief in tolerance became a stick to beat her (and Van Gogh) with, while the regenten turned away from dealing with the problems of immigrants carrying with them a culture at odds with that of the host country.

Buruma tells a good story, weaving together narrative and analysis to provide a fascinating portrait of Holland as “the land of guilty memories” — the most guilty being that of the Holocaust during World War II. Murder in Amsterdam is a well-written and thought-provoking book, especially because Buruma does not see clear or easy solutions, and leaves open the very difficult question of “the limits of tolerance”.

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