How Murder Exposed Dutch to Issues of Faith and Identity

This book review of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (Ian Buruma, Penguin, 278 pages, $24.95) ran in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, September 10.

By Donald Weber

In Murder in Amsterdam, journalist Ian Buruma returns to his native Netherlands to fathom the social, religious and psychological fissures exposed in the wake of the horrific killing of maverick Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh while bicycling to work on a cold morning in east Amsterdam.

The date was Nov. 2, 2004, just two months after his 11-minute film, Submission, about the plight of battered and abused Muslim women, aired on Dutch TV. The murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-born son of Moroccan immigrants, was enraged over the film's blasphemous imaging of the Koran's holy words inscribed on the body of a physically and spiritually shaken woman, visibly naked through her sheer burqa.

After shooting van Gogh, Bouyeri slit his throat with a scimitar and then plunged into his stomach a smaller knife, to which was affixed an open letter, a long, rambling screed against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is the film's screenwriter and a Dutch political celebrity and advocate for Muslim women's civil rights. Witnesses to the crime report that, before he died, van Gogh pleaded with his self-appointed ritual executioner:

" 'We can still talk about it! Don't do it! Don't do it!' "

The murder of van Gogh traumatized the Netherlands and liberal Western Europe in general. For outsiders, the tragedy quickly became symbolic, the Dutch 9/11. For the Dutch, it was a substantial shock to their much-admired system of mutual tolerance, to the long-standing ethos of gedogen--the social practice of live and let live.

The van Gogh case also exposed cracks in the already shaky foundation of the Netherlands' carefully structured society of separate spheres known as pillars, a system designed to enable Catholic, Protestant and secular citizens to live, more or less, apart, in self-enclosed worlds. Each pillar claimed its own schools, hospitals, unions, even media. And each subgroup agreed, more or less, on principles of compromise, to abide by the spirit of gedogen.

"There was something unhinged about the Netherlands in the winter of 2004," Buruma observes in the opening pages, "and I wanted to understand it better." With the curiosity of an investigative reporter absorbed by a fascinating story and the empathy of a native son, Buruma surveys the contemporary political-cultural landscape and discovers the tolerant pillar society in distress and under attack.

What unhinged the Netherlands in the wake of van Gogh's murder was the hard fact of Holland's uneasy self-recognition as an immigration nation, host to 1.8 million foreign-born immigrants, about 11 percent of the population, with an even larger percentage living in urban centers like Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

In Buruma's absorbing narrative, we follow the story, beginning in the 1950s and '60s, of Holland's need for guest workers to perform menial jobs for the large white middle class and the emergence of a rising generation of Dutch-Moroccan youth, now estimated at around 3 million, alienated by, if at times attracted to, extreme modes of behavior (legalized prostitution, drugs and countercultural styles in general) of the host nation.

From this mix of open secular styles and orthodox faith and practice Buruma presents a series of vivid portraits, fleshing out those involved in the van Gogh tragedy:

- Van Gogh, who imbibed the countercultural legacy of 1960s Holland and who possessed an innate "desire to shock, to stir things up."

- Hirsi Ali, an immigrant from Somalia with her own agenda of political provocation to expose the misogynistic effects of strict Islamic ideology.

- Pim Fortuyn, the charismatic, conservative, anti-immigrant, openly gay politician murdered, on the threshold of national elections, in May 2002 by an animal-rights activist. (Van Gogh's final film, 06/05, combines documentary style with political thriller to memorialize the slain maverick politician.)

- Bouyeri, a young man of apparently great promise, whose crime became exemplary of the failure of integration--the equivalent term in Europe for the U.S. ideal of assimilation.

Buruma offers a range of explanations--some compelling, others fairly speculative--to account for this tragedy of vented religious rage played out on the famously open streets of contemporary Amsterdam.

The portrait that emerges in Murder in Amsterdam is of a "land of guilty memories" still haunted by the shadow of the Holocaust, a shameful episode in Dutch history when many citizens aided the Nazis in the deportation of thousands of Jews, a previous group of immigrant "outsiders." In Buruma's view, Fortuyn's rabid Islamophobia dislodged memories of Dutch collaboration during World War II. "Never again, said the well-meaning defenders of the multicultural ideal, must Holland betray a religious minority. As a result, open debate between liberal and conservative politicians about the social impact of a radical Islam and the possibilities of a pluralistic society in the Netherlands became silenced.

By far the most interesting, if disturbing, portrait in Buruma's gallery is that of Bouyeri, and his internal transformation from would-be model citizen to self-appointed avenger of insulted Islam. We learn about his personal disappointments growing up on the margins of Amsterdam in "dish cities" where, via "satellite television and the Internet," immigrant families watch news of their homelands in a country where they feel displaced, some eventually unhinged. We learn from an Islamic psychiatrist, for example, about the high percentage of schizophrenia among second-generation immigrant sons, induced, perhaps, by the pressures of integration. We learn, above all, how embracing a faith identity like radical Islam can salve the pain of feeling homesick everywhere, converting alienation into salvation through an act felt not as murder but as the purest expression of faith.

Murder in Amsterdam leaves us with a portrait of a society that, in the words of Dutch writer Leon de Winter, has "lost its balance." Buruma's personal account of his homeland under siege powerfully conveys the looming challenge of integration facing the Netherlands, and Western Europe in general.

In the end, we are left sensing that there are no easy answers to the vexed questions of faith and identity in a fluid world of global migration, where even second-generation, native-born sons--as in the case of last year's subway suicide bombers in Britain--feel unwelcome in their homelands. In alienated response, indeed in resentment, they seize the hard, sometimes murderous purity of faith while longing for the imaginary, nostalgia-driven comforts of home, transmitted via cyberspace to burgeoning dish cities--the virtual homeland of the disaffiliated.

Donald Weber teaches English at Mount Holyoke College and is the author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture From Cahan to The Goldbergs.