"Murder in Amsterdam"

Ian Buruma's riveting account of the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist shows how a clash between European Enlightenment values and Muslim fundamentalism is ripping Dutch society apart.

Published September 27, 2006 12:45PM (EDT)

Like many Dutch people, my wife found the news that the filmmaker Theo van Gogh had been murdered by a Muslim extremist shocking, in two senses of the word: shocking-tragic, and shocking-weird. She had worked with van Gogh, as producer of one of his television series in 1998, "Het Is Hier Verschrikkelijk Gezellig" ("It's Terribly Nice Here"). The show revolved around van Gogh insulting and humiliating people engaged in recreational activities he considered contemptible: executives playing paintball, couples flying off for "exotic weddings," swingers' clubs. (Today, we would call it "reality TV," but that term didn't exist yet; it was coined in 1999, also in the Netherlands, when a Dutch studio called Endemol came out with the original version of "Big Brother.") Van Gogh's public persona was that of a fat, abusive, witty, politically incorrect buffoon, equal parts Johnny Knoxville and Michael Moore, the self-proclaimed "dorpsgek" ("village idiot") of the Netherlands. That such a character should become a victim of international jihad seemed an absurd joke or category error, as though the 9/11 terrorists had tried to blow up the town of South Park.

"It's Terribly Nice Here" found van Gogh at a low ebb in his career. His shtick had begun to seem less repellently funny than just plain repellent. My wife's strongest visual memory of the director was of him passed out on the couch in the editing room, a beached whale in mismatched socks. But in subsequent years, van Gogh reestablished himself by taking on more serious projects, and turning his ridicule toward a new target: Islam. Starting in about 2000, anti-Muslim sentiments, once taboo in self-consciously tolerant Holland, were voiced with increasing openness and conviction. Van Gogh jumped on the bandwagon, saying a number of things that would probably have ended an American entertainer's career, notably his use of the epithet "goatfuckers."

At the same time, he made some intelligent and well-received Islam-related films, including a miniseries called "Najib and Julia," a Moroccan-Dutch Romeo and Juliet story. In 2004, the Somali-born women's rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a Dutch M.P., enlisted van Gogh to direct her short TV film "Submission," which pictured a woman in a see-through hijab with Quranic verses projected on her skin, telling the stories of Muslim women abused by their husbands. Muslim viewers were predictably outraged. On Nov. 2, 2004, a Dutch-born 26-year-old named Mohammed Bouyeri followed van Gogh on his bicycle and shot and stabbed him to death on an Amsterdam street in broad daylight, staking a note to his body that vowed that Hirsi Ali would meet the same fate. Bouyeri was caught at the scene by police, and ultimately sentenced to life in prison.

Ian Buruma's "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance" places van Gogh's murder at the fulcrum of Dutch politics and society at the turn of the 21st century. A better book about the contemporary Netherlands has not been written. Like van Gogh, Buruma grew up well off in The Hague of the 1960s and '70s, and he brings to his portrait the deep understanding one can only have for those from one's native town and class. But Buruma has lived outside Holland since 1975, and has written extensively on the Far East and, more recently, the worldwide clash between political Islam and the secular West. These two perspectives, particular and global, interweave throughout "Murder in Amsterdam," in the classic fashion of the murder story as social investigation -- one thinks of "In Cold Blood," or the Dylan song "Who Killed Davey Moore?" As in the song, a lot of people turn out to bear some responsibility for van Gogh's death, and few of them are willing to own up to it.

The book opens with an account of van Gogh's slaying, and of the feverish months afterward, when tensions between Holland's white and immigrant communities made Buruma feel the country had come "unhinged." Buruma then begins laying out the back story. Mohammed Bouyeri is the son of one of the hundreds of thousands of Moroccans who, along with Turks, were allowed into the Netherlands in the '60s and '70s to perform unskilled jobs. Their children have had difficulty assimilating; Moroccan boys especially have high rates of criminality. The left-wing multiculturalist consensus in Dutch politics from the '70s to the '90s tended to brand any discussion of such problems as racist. But by the late '90s, that consensus was falling apart, and many Dutch on both the left and the right began to phrase the problem as one of upholding European Enlightenment values -- religious and sexual tolerance, equality for women -- against Muslim fundamentalism. "The Enlightenment, in other words," Buruma writes, "has become the name for a new conservative order, and its enemies are the aliens, whose values we can't share."

Buruma turns next to the figure who best exemplified this trend, Pim Fortuyn. He is the first of a series of incredible characters: a bespoke-suited, flamboyantly gay university professor in a chauffeured Bentley who used the anti-Muslim card to upend the Dutch political landscape in two short years, becoming a favorite for prime minister before himself being assassinated, in 2002, by an environmental extremist. Fortuyn used his homosexuality as armor for his anti-immigrant conservatism: It is because we Dutch believe in equality for gays and women, he would say, that we cannot put up with the fundamentalism of these "kut-marokkanen" ("cunt-Moroccans"). The fact that equality for gays and women had only been accepted in Holland itself 30 years earlier went unmentioned.

Buruma concentrates on Fortuyn's inauthenticity, his self-willed makeover from second-rate sociologist to outrageous conservative rock star. Part of what Fortuyn represented was a rebellion against the gray uniformity of the Netherlands' famously dull politics, long dominated by the "pillar" model, in which the country's different religious communities split up the national pie in reasonable negotiations. The pillar model began to disintegrate from the '60s on, but in the '90s was succeeded by an equally dull and reasonable right-left "purple" coalition. The Dutch are simultaneously proud and resentful of their plodding moderation, and at key moments, as with Fortuyn, the resentment bursts to the surface. Ironically, the politician who claimed to be defending Dutch values from an alien threat was himself behaving in ways that were profoundly, and calculatedly, un-Dutch.

One of Fortuyn's biggest fans was van Gogh, a foulmouthed iconoclast from a very respectable, if not quite elite, family. Yes, they are those van Goghs: The painter's brother Theo was the filmmaker's great-grandfather. More interesting yet are van Gogh's father, a retired intelligence agent with staunch middle-left politics, and his late uncle, a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance executed in the last days of World War II.

Buruma uses this family history as an occasion to trace how the war continues to structure the Dutch moral imagination, distinguishing whose ancestors were "right" (anti-racist, resisters) and whose were "wrong" (racist, collaborators). The war reinforced a self-righteous, self-pitying strain in Dutch nationalism, a vision of the country as the resistant victim of fanatical foreigners (Catholic Spain in the 16th century, Nazi Germany in the 20th), which does not entirely square with the modern record. The Dutch under Nazi rule were mostly resentful but obedient; a larger percentage of Jews were exterminated in Holland than in any European country but Poland.

Van Gogh himself rebelled against such pieties. In the '80s, he got into a public feud with a Dutch Jewish writer after accusing him of capitalizing on Holocaust nostalgia. (Specifically, he said the writer wrapped his penis in barbed wire and shouted "Auschwitz!" when he came.) The content of such declarations is less important than the eagerness to give offense. Van Gogh was part of an Amsterdam cultural scene that delighted in such stunts, and that traced its roots to the white-jeaned "Provos" of the '60s, whose absurdist provocations touched off the transformation of Holland from one of the most conservative and religious societies in Europe to one of its most secular and progressive. At the same time, as Buruma shows, there was something puritanical in van Gogh's hostility to social conventions, something of Holland's famous Calvinist rectitude, harking back to the country's origins in a literal wave of iconoclasm, the smashing of Catholic icons in the cathedrals of Flanders in the 1560s.

For all van Gogh's outrageousness, he never would have gotten himself killed had it not been for Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali is another stranger-than-fiction character: a brilliant and stunningly beautiful Somali from a prominent political family who fled to Holland to escape a forced marriage, learned perfect Dutch, joined the left-wing Labor Party to advocate for abused Muslim women immigrants, and by 2002 was a Member of Parliament and rising star in the conservative free-market Liberal Party. She represents precisely the kind of refugee Holland prides itself on accepting, one seeking freedom because of her beliefs.

But Hirsi Ali's hostility toward Islam has also proven extremely useful to the right-wing politicians who have promoted her. This has largely destroyed her credibility among the Muslim women she says she is trying to help. And gradually, her confrontational style has begun to grate on the very Dutch voters who once backed her. The death of van Gogh produced an outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment in Holland, but it also produced a slow backlash against Hirsi Ali. This spring she was effectively pushed out of the country: The minister of immigration, "Iron Rita" Verdonk, briefly revoked her citizenship after a television program reported that she had lied on her application for refugee status -- a fact she had been open about for years. Hirsi Ali has now given up her seat in Parliament and emigrated to the United States. (In a postscript, Buruma notes, "My country feels smaller without her.")

Finally, there is Mohammed Bouyeri, perhaps the least original of the characters in the drama, if ultimately the most important. Bouyeri fits the profile of lone gunmen the world over: an intelligent young man whose efforts to "make it" in mainstream society met with reversals, and who gradually gave up, retreating into violent ideology and fantasy. Bouyeri did well in high school and tried several university programs, but found nothing to hold his interest. He got involved in organizing for a local Muslim community youth center, but had a funding application rejected. Then he fell in with a group of kids who liked to download videos of Middle Eastern terrorists sawing the heads off of infidels.

Buruma does a solid job of conveying the background of young men like Bouyeri, their inability to respect their immigrant parents, and the familiar group dynamics that lead those who assimilate successfully to be labeled collaborators. He has a long section on the gender-based oppression of Moroccan and Turkish women and girls in the Netherlands, which he balances with profiles of Moroccan-Dutch and Turkish-Dutch youth who are doing well in Dutch society, and with others who try to bridge the gap, like the Amsterdam city alderman Ahmed Aboutaleb.

But his most interesting contribution here is to provide a more comprehensible vision of Bouyeri. Van Gogh's murderer has been widely quoted as having viciously told his victim's mother, at his trial, "I don't feel your pain." In Buruma's account, this seems to have been a wrongful twist of Bouyeri's words: "He spoke slowly, in halting sentences, in an accent that was mostly Amsterdam with a Moroccan-Dutch lilt. First he addressed Theo van Gogh's mother, Anneke. He could not 'feel her pain,' he said, for he didnt know what it was like 'to lose a child born through such pain and so many tears.' Because he was not a woman, and because she was an infidel."

If Buruma's version is correct, Bouyeri was acknowledging Anneke's pain, not denying it. His words have the tortuous self-justifying logic of anyone convicted of a heinous crime. Bouyeri comes across as all too understandable a character, far from the merciless butcher depicted in the press.

Most of all, he comes across as Dutch. Dutch is Bouyeri's first language. Aside from one summer in his parents' native village in Morocco, where he was lonely and out of place, he has spent his entire life in the Netherlands. His ludicrous political fantasies and spectacular crime, his refusal to speak throughout his trial, and his strange and pathetic statement at its end, are strongly reminiscent of Marinus van der Lubbe, the hapless oddball Dutch Communist convicted of setting the Reichstag fire in 1933 -- a figure who has gone down in Dutch history as a sort of tragicomic hero.

For as much as the Netherlands has a culture of reasonableness, tolerance, compromise and conformist Calvinist morality, it also has a long tradition of freaks, people unable to conform, who launch quixotic rebellions against society's strictures. Vincent van Gogh found himself unable to fit in; his great-grandnephew Theo did too.

This tension is in fact what van Gogh was getting at in the TV series my wife produced, "Het Is Hier Verschrikkelijk Gezellig." "Verschrikkelijk" translates fairly well as "terribly": As in English, it can be used idiomatically to mean "very," but the root "schrik" means shock or terror. The word "gezellig" is one of those untranslatable ones that are supposed to express the essence of a culture. The Dutch often translate it as "cozy," but it is closer to a communal kind of "fun," "nice," or "sociable," and might best be expressed by a Franz Hals painting of a bunch of people enjoying a good time in a cheery bar. The root "gezel" means "fellow" or "mate," as in "gezelschap," a society or group of companions. There is a strong imperative to be "gezellig" in Dutch society, and van Gogh's pun on "verschrikkelijk" is a version of one of the most common Dutch cultural self-critiques, of how "terrible" this "coziness" can be. Inside the pun lurks a basic opposition between "gezel" and "schrik," between fitting in, being a nice fellow, and terror.

And so we come back to van Gogh's assassin. Mohammed Bouyeri does not have much in common with his victim, but he, and the tens of thousands of young Dutch Muslim men like him, do share both van Gogh's inability to accommodate to "normal" Dutch society, and his inability to live anywhere else. They may be influenced by rural Moroccan norms of gender roles and honor; they may not feel Dutch; they may declare war on their own country in a suicidal fit of machismo. But there is nowhere else for them to go. As Buruma says, the risk of Muslim violence will continue "as long as young men and women feel that death is their only way home." Holland, like the rest of Europe, is stuck with its prodigal sons, and it is up to Holland to figure out how to make them feel they belong. Proclaiming one's right as an heir of the Enlightenment to call them "goatfuckers" was probably not a good place to start.

By Matt Steinglass

Matt Steinglass writes for the Boston Globe and other publications, and for the children's television show "Arthur." He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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