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The execution of Theo Van Gogh

Wednesday, Aug 30 2006

The basic story of Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance is fairly well-known. In 2004, Van Gogh, a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking Dutch filmmaker, television personality and all-purpose provocateur — imagine a cross between Christopher Hitchens and Michael Moore — teamed up with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a beautiful Somalian immigrant and Muslim apostate who originally came to Holland fleeing an arranged marriage, to make a short film titled Submission about the mistreatment of Muslim women at the hands of tyrannical husbands and, ultimately, Islam itself. The 10-minute film was shown — once — on Dutch television, and caused outrage, particularly because words from the Koran were projected on the lightly veiled flesh of naked women. On November 2, 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri, a disaffected 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan who got off on videos of infidels being slaughtered, took his carefully plotted revenge. Ambushing the film director on an Amsterdam street, he shot him, then cut his throat, practically beheading him. Finally, he attached a very long, handwritten letter to his chest with the aid of a firmly planted butcher’s knife. Van Gogh died, Bouyeri was arrested, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the film’s script, went into hiding.

The effect of this sensationally grisly murder was enhanced by the fact that Van Gogh was the great-grandson of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, to whom the celebrated letters of the film Dear Theo were written. It would be difficult, in other words, to find a more purely Dutch figure, at least in terms of lineage, to assassinate in the name of Islam. As for Hirsi Ali, she was surely as close to the “perfect” immigrant as Holland could hope for. She learned the language, studied the country’s history and respected its laws. Once a radical Muslim herself, she made a complete about-turn after September 11, disavowing Allah and embracing atheism. She became a member of the Dutch parliament, allying herself with what were seen in bien-pensant circles as reactionary, anti-immigration forces. But she knew the dangers that Islam posed to Europe and was determined to wake up its comatose political elites. Most of her fellow immigrants, burrowed deep in victim culture, hated her with a passion, as did many leftists. Buruma quotes DHC, a Hague-based hip-hop band: “Fuck Hirsi Ali Somali/Just two months in Holland and already so knowing/Cancer whore, shit stain, I’ll smash your face.” The three Moroccan rappers promised to “cut [her] up in two” and crafted a refrain celebrating the ritual genital circumcision she’d suffered as a child.

Readers of Murder in Amsterdam are likely to close the book with a heavy heart. One reason is that the problem it addresses, the emergence of militant Islam as a divisive political/religious force in the West, is not going to go away soon. Another is that, though full of learning and skilled if tepid reporting, Buruma’s book often feels muddled, ungenerous and confusing. There is plenty of scholarship on display, but no compelling point of view.

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There is, however, an off-putting strain of snobbery. Buruma, an Asia specialist and the author of Inventing Japan, Anglomania and, most recently, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, grew up in Holland but left it as a young man in the 1970s. Now a New Yorker, he clearly feels he’s gone on to bigger and better things. He rarely misses a chance to take a swipe at some aspect of Dutch life, whether it’s the “dank and gray” area of the Hague he was raised in or the “arrogance” of the great national soccer teams of the 1970s and ’80s.

Van Gogh’s murder followed the assassination two years earlier of Pim Fortuyn, Holland’s flamboyantly gay, and very popular, anti-immigration politician who had also railed against the Islamicization of the Netherlands. Fortuyn was killed not by a Muslim, but by a white, left-wing vegan “activist,” who didn’t like the fact that the flashy politician wore fur collars and criticized immigrants. “The sobering truth,” wrote Rod Dreher in National Review shortly after Fortuyn’s death, “is that Europe — democratic, gun-controlling Europe — is a place where questioning the immigration status quo will not only get you branded a fascist by the news media, it will get you shot dead.”

You won’t find that kind of straightforward statement in Buruma’s book, even though Fortuyn — or “the divine baldy,” as Van Gogh called him — is given a chapter all to himself. Though both Van Gogh and Fortuyn are dead, and Hirsi Ali is never without a bodyguard, Buruma is pretty severe with all three. He calls Fortuyn a “populist,” a “reactionary” and a “social climber” who, though not a racist like Austria’s Jörg Haider or France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, “to a confused people, afraid of being swamped by immigrants . . . promised a way back to simpler times . . . when everyone was white, and upstanding Dutchmen were in control of the nation’s destiny. He was a peddler of nostalgia.”

But what exactly is Buruma peddling? He wonders how it was possible for a politician like Fortuyn — “a gay man who talked openly of sexual adventures in bathhouses and ‘backrooms’ ” — to become “so popular in a country known for its Calvinist restraint,” when he has already explained that the Netherlands ditched all that Calvinist stuff back in the 1970s, going on to become the world’s most progressive country in terms of personal and sexual freedom. (Red-light district, anyone?) He dutifully notes that Amsterdam is likely to be a majority-Muslim city in nine years’ time, but unlike the voters Fortuyn appealed to, he is not “confused,” let alone worried, by this. He writes, rather, like a man who is above such “petit-bourgeois” concerns, as they were recently termed in The New Yorker. And while his criticisms of Fortuyn, Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali are occasionally interspersed with praise, the latter is usually fleeting.

On the other hand, he is happy to inform readers that “perhaps the most impressive young woman I ran across during my time in Holland . . . wore a black chador that left only her round, friendly face, with a touch of lipstick and mascara, open to the eyes of the world.” According to Buruma, this woman, Nora, is in favor of the separation of church and state, against the imposition of sharia law in Holland — this is supposed to be a great achievement, apparently — and “would never even think” of living in a country like Saudi Arabia, even though — as any sane reader will immediately recognize — she chooses to dress as if she were already there.

Though Nora is known for her “big mouth” — she is president of an Islamic students’ union — September 11 predictably left her “speechless.” Or not quite: “She felt that all Muslims were being blamed, especially after the same frightening images were shown over and over on the television news, not only of the smoking towers in Manhattan, but of young Muslims dancing with joy in a small Dutch town called Ede.” Buruma swallows this evasive junk whole.

There’s worse. In Amersfoort, “in the shadow of the Church Tower of Our Lady,” he has tea with Bellari Said, “a small, trim man, born in Morocco,” who works as a psychiatrist. Bellari’s politics “are a mixture of leftist Third Worldism, with a particular animus against Israel and the United States.” He believes that “the West will only be reconciled with the Islamic world once Israel ceases to exist.” (Exeunt Jews.) With a remarkably straight face, Buruma calls this anti-Semitic moonbat “another Moroccan success story.”

Learned and informative as it is, there is something distinctly feeble about this book. It draws to a close with a description of Dutch soccer fans on a train, decked out clownishly in nationalist orange garb, jumping up and down “with a fervor that blurred the borderlines between ecstasy and fury.” Buruma buries his face in a newspaper and tries to pretend he’s not there. “Don’t you love Holland?” one boorish fan bellows at him. (An honest answer might have been “Actually, no, dude. I’m an International Man of History.”) But of this World Cup–style bellicosity, Buruma then goes on to say, “It was a return to an invented country, no more real than a modern Dutch Muslim’s fantasy of the pure world of the Prophet. Both fantasies contain the seeds of destruction.”

Well, yes. But are those “seeds” at quite the same stage of development? (And what are all those Islamist ones doing in a Dutch garden anyway?) The patriotism of the soccer fans, Buruma admits, is largely “a festive holiday from postwar political pieties.” And it is precisely those pieties that Van Gogh, Fortuyn and Hirsi Ali were fighting, and two of the three have already paid with their lives. Buruma knows all this, but he doesn’t quite seem to feel it. Nor does he escape those pieties himself. On November 2, 2004, “the violent fantasies of a Dutch Muslim ended in the murder of a fellow citizen,” he states in the closing paragraph. But was Bouyeri “Dutch” in any meaningful sense? Did he regard Van Gogh as a “fellow citizen” or simply an infidel? At any rate, Buruma’s closing sentence leans less to Van Gogh than to his murderer: “What happened in this small corner of northwestern Europe could happen anywhere, as long as young men and women feel that death is their only way home.”

How about just buying them a plane ticket?

MURDER IN AMSTERDAM: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance | By IAN BURUMA | Penguin Books | 320 pages | $25 hardcover

  • The execution of Theo Van Gogh

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