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Words can kill

Murder in Amsterdam The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance Ian Buruma Penguin Press: 278 pp., $24.95

October 01, 2006|Stephanie Giry | Stephanie Giry is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.

IAN BURUMA'S "Murder in Amsterdam" is a native's reflection on what the ritualistic murder of filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh by an Islamist fanatic in 2003 augurs for multiculturalism in the Netherlands. The book contains little hard data and makes no pretense of being social science. It's impressionistic, excursive reportage -- centering on a dozen or so interviews -- that is knowing and intimate but occasionally marred by subtly questionable assumptions.

Buruma, who is half Dutch, half British and has gained a well-rounded perspective from many years abroad, is an assured cultural interpreter. Occasionally, you just have to take his word that something is "oddly Dutch" -- resentment, delusions of grandeur or "offensiveness projected as a sign of sincerity" -- but generally, he's deft at describing what makes it so. He explains that political correctness, born of guilt over the country's treatment of Jews during World War II, has perversely become a cover for not examining problematic trends, such as crime, among Muslim immigrants. Various malaises now coexist: those of newcomers who struggle to find their place and those of the native Dutch who believe the immigrants are recalcitrant about adopting Dutch ways and take advantage of the government's largesse. A yearning for belonging has pushed some disaffected Muslims to embrace an exalted vision of Islam; meanwhile, some Dutch have become aggressively nostalgic for the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Confrontations between these groups can be fierce, Buruma writes, because they are clashes "between two different versions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious."

To explain why calling Muslims a "fifth column" and other such provocations got Van Gogh killed, Buruma unearths longstanding tensions between Protestant propriety and a tradition of "abusive criticism." He draws savvy connections between Van Gogh's slaying and the assassination of another outre gadfly: Pim Fortuyn, the fur-toting, in-your-face-gay anti-immigration candidate for prime minister, who was assassinated by an animal-rights activist in 2002. Both murderers were "idealistic narcissists," Buruma writes, borrowing a columnist's phrase, and both killings were "principled."

Yet he makes too little of the fact that Fortuyn was killed by a "fanatical vegan," not an Islamist. If Buruma is to argue that such isolated incidents exemplify social trends, he should also note that Muslims aren't the only Dutch people prone to murderous rages. Another point he overlooks is that Van Gogh's death triggered a broad anti-Muslim backlash, but Fortuyn's hardly sullied vegetarians. In other words, the Dutch public seems especially primed to see matters involving Muslims through the prism of ethnicity and religion.

At times, so does Buruma. Hearing of "Moroccan youths" who urinated on a street in Amsterdam's red-light district, he muses that successful integration is really about "how to make those boys pissing on the seventeenth-century door feel that this is their home too." Well, one way would be to assume that their sullying of a door has to do not with ethnicity but with being immature, drunk or rude.

Part of what makes "Murder in Amsterdam" interesting is its gallery of exceptional people -- but that also limits its scope. In addition to Van Gogh and Fortuyn, Buruma pays a lot of attention to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali refugee-turned-parliamentarian who wrote the rabidly anti-Islam script that cost filmmaker Van Gogh his life, and Mohammed Bouyeri, the unhinged but eloquent second-generation Moroccan who assassinated him. All are portrayed as unusually dogmatic and driven.

Studying marginal people is one way to explore the limits of tolerance, as the subtitle of the book promises, but not to understand its core features, which is probably more important. You wouldn't want to turn the rare and the extreme into the emblematic. Let's not assume, for example, that the explosive conditions that turned Bouyeri into a killer -- rejection, humiliation, moralism, fervor -- would affect the lives of most other Dutch Muslims. That might be the case, but it's a case that needs to be made.

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