Sept/Oct/Nov 2006

It shakes a village

Ian Buruma investigates Dutch society after Theo Van Gogh's murder

Alex Abramovich


Two years ago in Amsterdam, a twenty-six-year-old Dutch man named Mohammed Bouyeri shot, stabbed, and slit the throat of newspaper columnist and filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The victim, a great-grandson of Vincent van Gogh's brother, was Holland's foremost provocateur, a self-proclaimed "village idiot" who was not above calling Muslims "goat fuckers" or suggesting that Jews have "wet dreams about being fucked by Dr. Mengele"—anything, it seemed, to shake up Holland's sleepy status quo. The killer was a Dutch Moroccan who'd failed to assimilate into Dutch society, turned to radical Islam, and set out to "cut off the heads of all those who insult Allah and his prophet." The murder, which took place 911 days after the assassination of Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn, was widely perceived as a local symptom of global jihad. And in Amsterdam, where nearly half the population is foreign-born, and most of the foreign-born are Muslims, the status quo was, and remains, quite visibly shaken.

To understand the impact of van Gogh's death, its helps to know that the Netherlands is a tiny nation, just half the size of South Carolina, and the most densely populated country in Europe. Its haute-bourgeois citizens have always prided themselves on their ability to get along. And ever since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, getting along in the Netherlands has been famously easy: As Ian Buruma notes in Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, the government's laissez-faire attitude toward gay rights and euthanasia—and, for that matter, drugs, pornography, and prostitution—has inspired an "air of satisfaction, even smugness" in the population, a "self-congratulatory notion of living in the finest, freest, most progressive, most decent, most perfectly evolved playground of multicultural utopianism." But that notion, too, is falling victim to Bouyeri's actions. One of the existential questions Buruma's investigation poses is, How can a society based on multiculturalism and tolerance tolerate Islamic intolerance in its midst?

Bouyeri's actions were a direct response to van Gogh's collaboration, with the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on a short film called Submission, in the course of which verses from the Koran are projected onto the bodies of several nude women. Hirsi Ali and van Gogh both received death threats when Dutch television screened the film, but while Hirsi Ali accepted a police escort, van Gogh would not: "Who would want to kill the village idiot?" he reportedly asked. Oddly enough, it seems that Bouyeri—who owned a CD-ROM containing video footage of at least twenty-three killings, including that of American journalist Daniel Pearl—had the better sense of just how global the village had become:

This was the crowning irony. Van Gogh, more than anyone, had warned about the dangers of violent religious passions, and yet he behaved as though they held no consequences for him. He made the mistake of assuming that the wider world would not intrude on his Amsterdam scene, with its private ironies, its personal feuds, and its brutal mockery that was never intended to draw more than imaginary blood.

Buruma, an Anglo-Dutch writer who teaches journalism at Bard College in New York, is in a unique position to explain Holland's predicament to an English-speaking audience, and his slim but free-ranging investigation (which covers the year after the murder and devotes chapters to van Gogh, Fortuyn, Hirsi Ali, and Bouyeri, among others) succeeds, in part, because he's willing to wrestle with the larger issues raised by van Gogh's death. Like many European countries, the Netherlands imported workers to perform the tasks its upwardly mobile postwar proletariat found difficult, dangerous, or demeaning. Turks came first and had an easier time adjusting to the environment. Moroccans—Berbers from villages in the Rif Mountains—arrived later, recruited on the basis of good teeth and strong hands. Illiterate men had an edge over the educated. None of the workers were expected to stay. But since Holland is, in many ways, a more hospitable place than the Moroccan highlands, a good many did, and those who remained sent for their families. Today, they live in the outlying "dish cities" (so named for the preponderance of satellite dishes tuned to television stations in Morocco and the Middle East), speak Dutch haltingly if at all, and make little effort to assimilate into a society whose idea of "tolerance," Buruma notes, often amounts to just that. The workers make few demands on the state and are largely invisible. The "Moroccan problem," insofar as it can be described as such (and it very often is), has to do with their kids.

"A young Moroccan male of the second generation [is] ten times more likely to be schizophrenic than a native Dutchman from a similar economic background," Buruma writes, roughly midway through Murder in Amsterdam. It's a striking statistic, but it begins to make sense when one considers the plight of Moroccan youths. Cut off from the third-world background their parents have in common, discouraged from visiting Dutch nightclubs and restaurants, and discriminated against in the workplace, more than a few find themselves caught betwixt cultures and slipping through society's cracks. (Van Gogh's murder made matters worse in this respect; Moroccan youths report having an even more difficult time securing jobs and internships.) And in practice, Dutch multiculturalism can amount to little more than a form of indifference or benign neglect. ("It is easy to be tolerant of those who are much like ourselves, whom we feel we can trust instinctively, whose jokes we understand, who share our sense of irony," Buruma notes. "It is much harder to extend the same principle to strangers in our midst.") And so, while the older generation tends toward the secular, the resulting identity crisis makes Muslim youths especially susceptible to appeals from radical imams, who are often illegal aliens from the Middle East. Today, radicalized youth seems to account for the tiniest fraction of Holland's Muslim population. But Bouyeri's actions show us how easy it is for one bad apple to ruin the bunch.

Meanwhile, the Dutch have aired a few of their own, legitimate grievances: Moroccan youths sometimes cause disturbances in the nightclubs they do visit, picking fights and acting aggressively toward women and homosexuals. And in a country haunted by its wartime failures—despite Holland's reputation as a safe harbor, only Poland gave up a higher percentage of its Jews—anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. ("A friend of mine once admonished a couple of Moroccan youths for urinating against the wooden door of a fine seventeenth-century townhouse," Buruma writes. "Why not use the canal, he suggested. For an instant, they were taken by surprise, but then told him in perfect Amsterdam accents to 'mind your own business, you fucking Jew!'") On September 11, 2001, Moroccan youths were seen dancing in the streets in the village of Ede; video footage shown on Dutch television added further to the atmosphere of fear and mistrust. And while the Moroccan community tends to view Bouyeri's actions as those of a lone sociopath, sympathy for van Gogh (and, especially, Hirsi Ali) is limited. In Amsterdam, both the Dutch and Dutch Moroccans describe the atmosphere as "steamy," as if sensing a storm just over the horizon.

One could argue that, by bringing in so many Muslim workers, the Netherlands effectively imported a colony, and that the resulting tensions have less to do with Morocco, the Middle East, or Islam than with a postcolonial conflict taking place on Holland's home turf. Buruma's greatest virtue is that he understands the ways in which site-specific tensions in Holland tie into larger historical currents, and he is as good at describing those currents (which may well lead to "the end of Europe, not as a geographical entity, but as a community of values born of the Enlightenment") as he is at picking out details—like "the Nike sneakers [Bouyeri] wore under his black djellaba"—that drive his arguments home.

In the end, Buruma spreads those arguments out in front of us rather than tying them up in a bundle; he has no concrete suggestions to make and no clear sense of where the Netherlands is headed. But of course, those who think they do know, know wrong; in this case, at least, Buruma's sense of the lay of the land is itself invaluable: "The murder of Theo van Gogh was committed by one Dutch convert to a revolutionary war," he concludes, in a passage that should recommend his book to anyone interested in European history as well as Europe's future. "Such revolutionaries in Europe are still few in number. But the murder, like the bomb attacks in Madrid and London, the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, and the worldwide Muslim protests against cartoons of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper, exposed dangerous fractures that run through all European nations. Islam may soon become the majority religion in countries whose churches have been turned more and more into tourist sites, apartment houses, theaters, and places of entertainment. . . . How Europeans, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, cope with this is the question that will decide our future. And what better place to watch the drama unfold than the Netherlands, where freedom came from a revolt against Catholic Spain, where ideals of tolerance and diversity became a badge of national honor, and where political Islam struck its first blow against a man whose deepest conviction was that freedom of speech included the freedom to insult."

Alex Abramovich is a writer and editor in Astoria, Queens. He writes about culture and the arts for the New York Times, Slate, and other publications.

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