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Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
Ian Buruma

Munira Mirza
posted 6 November 2006

In the aftermath of 7/7, there has been an unceasing demand for an official inquiry into why the London bombings happened. Those arguing for this say the public needs to know why such a tragic event occurred. Critics have suggested that a team of bureaucrats cannot be trusted to reveal the true nature of the event. Certainly, the official accounts of the terrorist attacks have failed to quell debate. When The Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7 July 2005 was published earlier this year, it begged more questions than it answered, and fuelled further speculation about the role of various factors, including the war in Iraq, alienation of Muslims, and multiculturalism.

The idea that a committee might be able to 'answer' a question that has created such ferocious political debate is of course wholly naïve. But perhaps that is not the point. What an inquiry is supposed to do is lay to the rest the ghosts of the event and offer some official closure to the debate.

Ian Buruma's 'investigation' into the murder of Theo Van Gogh in his native Amsterdam is valuable precisely because he refuses to settle for easy answers. This short, thoughtful book is packed with insight and provides a counter to the overly empirical, reductive accounts of the multicultural experience in European societies. He is willing to engage with complex cultural contradictions and tease out the ambivalent feelings that European publics hold towards their Muslim populations.

Buruma's starting point is not the arrival of Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands, but the post-war guilt complex of the Dutch themselves. He carefully exposes the cracks in the national self-image - the beacon of calm, almost smug, liberal tolerance in northern Europe - by revealing the deep-seated shame over empire, and complicity with the Nazis during World War Two. It is this history, he argues, that has left the Dutch with an ambivalent attitude to cultural difference, more complicated than the image of tolerance suggests. Successive waves of immigrants - particularly the Turkish and Moroccans - have encountered the apparent tolerance of the Dutch, yet been left economically and socially isolated in the suburbs.

It is out of this contradiction of Dutch tolerance and alienation that Buruma's cast of characters emerges. Theo Van Gogh, the brash, unapologetic child of the polite middle class in the Hague, who built a career on offending all sensibilities across the political spectrum. The late, flamboyantly homosexual Pim Fortuyn, whose steady rise in Dutch politics reflected something of the sense of cultural resentment of a whole generation that feels uncomfortable in society, yet also with its outsiders ('Such men know they will never quite belong'). Mohammed Bouyari, the loner murderer of Van Gogh, driven by his humiliation and hatred for a hypocritical society he tried desperately to enter. Aayan Hirsi Ali, the self-proclaimed child of the Enlightenment who rages against the failure of the West to defend its values against the intolerance of the Muslim world from which she came.

What is striking is how our feelings towards these characters switch page by page. In this, they reflect the contradictions of their time, as products of an ongoing tension in Western society itself. The appearance is a straightforward war between the Enlightenment and the multiculturalists, but to his credit, Buruma does not throw in his lot wholly behind one team (although his sympathies tend more clearly towards the humanist Enlightenment). Rather, he recognises how the 'Enlightenment' has become a soundbite in itself, hollowed out of its original meaning as it becomes nothing more that a stick to beat religion with. 'To see religion, or even religious orthodoxy, as the main enemy of Enlightenment values is misleading,' he writes, instead seeing both camps as a rallying point for people's desire to belong to something more universal. In this context, religion becomes a strategy for young Muslims to cope with their alienation from Dutch society. The conversations with younger Muslims in Amsterdam reveals the poignant sense of humiliation that drives the search for identity. The religious attire, he notes wrily, is an assertion of their difference rather than devotion, making them more like Dutch citizens than anyone realises.

Buruma's portrayal of the contemporary Netherlands mirrors Britain almost to a fault. He describes the hysterical commentary that dominates public discussion and a climate 'in which the slightest faux pas would spark endless rounds of overheated commentary'. The refusal of a prominent imam to shake the hand of a female Dutch politician, Rita Verdonk is a case in point. The minor incident is splashed over the front page to affirm existing prejudices and stoke fears of division.

We in Britain of course have our own 'incidents', whether they involve veils or cartoons, which are used to force people to settle on one side of the fence, however simplistic such a division might be. The tendency to oversimplify matters reflects the failure of current political vocabularies to work out the emerging fault lines in our society. Perhaps when the labels 'left' and 'right' do not seem to offer any guide for how to react to these questions, it is time we develop a new political compass altogether.


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