The end of `the sweet dream of tolerance'

Review Multiculturalism

September 10, 2006|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Murder In Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

Ian Buruma

The Penguin Press / 220 pages / $24.95

Theo van Gogh, great-grandnephew of the painter Vincent, a film director of considerable notoriety, was shot to death in 2004 while riding his bicycle one morning in Amsterdam. His killer was Mohammed Bouyeri, a son of Moroccan immigrants. Dressed in a black jellaba and wearing Nike sneakers, Bouyeri was pursuing his own personal jihad. Having shot van Gogh in the stomach, Bouyeri cut his throat with a curved machete. With sympathetic understanding, author and social critic Ian Buruma writes in Murder In Amsterdam that Bouyeri, "unsure of where he belonged ... lost himself in a murderous cause."

Bouyeri was not yet done. With a knife, he pinned a note to van Gogh's dying body. It contained a threat to a black Somali-born politician named Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had written an eleven-minute film directed by van Gogh in which the text of the Koran was projected onto the skins of naked women. Ali's purpose was not merely to be provocative, but to reveal how cruel the sacred text could be. Even progressive Muslim women, however, were offended by Submission. In a footnote to Buruma's book, Ali has since sought political asylum in the United States and resides here.

Theo van Gogh had tested the limits of civility and behaved as if freedom of speech included "the freedom to insult." Accompanying van Gogh's murder was that of a no less vocal politician named Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing populist and gay "outsider." His killer was a Dutch animal activist, offended by Fortuyn's belligerence and his bigoted demand that discontented immigrants "get the hell out, back to your own country and culture."

Both men crossed the frontier of civilized discourse and shook things up. Both paid with their lives. Both murders reflect a society in disarray.

Ian Buruma returned to the "reassuringly dull" country of his birth to explore what van Gogh's murder meant not only for Holland, but for the former colonial nations of Europe that have been the recipients of large-scale immigration. He has produced a brilliant, chilling, and intellectually rigorous book, indispensable reading. Buruma discovers a Holland forced to accept Islam as "a European religion," one practiced by what has become a large citizen minority. By 1999, 45 percent of the residents of Amsterdam were of foreign origin, most of them Muslim in religion.

Moroccan and Turkish "guest workers" had been encouraged to migrate for the cheap labor they provided. In Holland, they encountered racism and social discrimination. Educated as Dutch citizens, their children are now raising their voices in defiance of a society they view as hypocritical, one that has long touted its tolerance while fostering a colonialism at home once inflicted on the foreign shores of Indonesia and Surinam.

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Buruma notes, the works of Voltaire, Moliere, Victor Hugo and Jonathan Swift were published in Holland, a bastion of freedom of discourse, "because they were banned in their own countries." Today a segment of the populace is challenging Holland's pretense of equality and democratic fair-mindedness. Freedom of speech has lost its force as an absolute value. Buruma adds that at least one operative factor in the upheaval is that the Netherlands is an ally of the United States in its Iraq war.

Buruma's complex analysis is historical as well as social. He reaches back to the Nazi period, only to discover in the Europe of the 1990s crowds at soccer games reviling Jewish players with hissing sounds, the sound of escaping gas. Buruma also provides acute historical biographies of his central characters. Theo as an obstreperous child made an 8 mm film of his classmates eating excrement, foreshadowing his adult outrageousness and lust for celebrity status in calling his Islamic neighbors "goat f---ers" and Jesus Christ "that rotten fish from Nazareth." Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now a proponent of secularism, began as a religious zealot demonstrating against Salman Rushdie.

Witness testimony is included from psychiatrists, politicians, professors and left-wing feminists uneasy with offering social welfare or subsidies "to people who refuse to shake hands with a woman." Nora, a Moroccan law student, believes in the separation of church and state and is a member of the Young Socialists. Yet she accepts that she won't ever become a barrister because, in her mind, neither the law court nor the city government is an appropriate venue for a woman in a head scarf. A psychiatrist of Moroccan descent tells Buruma that after 9/11, an event that inspired cheering in some Moroccan communities in Holland, he perceived something he had not encountered in 30 years, a threat to the constitutional state itself.

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