By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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.
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.