Murder always has the potential to shock, but this one was particularly gruesome.
On a cold Amerstdam morning in November 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri shot and killed Theo Van Gogh, great-grandnephew of the iconic painter. Witnesses talked later about how calmly Bouyeri, a Muslim and the son of Moroccan immigrants, carried out his task – a task he finished by taking a curved machete to his victim’s throat, slitting it and then planting the machete in Van Gogh’s chest.
In addition to being a descendant of the great Dutch painter, Van Gogh was a prolific and controversial filmmaker who had recently collaborated with Somali emigre Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a film called Submission. In the note that he pinned to Van Gogh’s chest, Bouyeri asserted that Hirsi Ali was a “soldier of Evil” who had “turned her back on the Truth.” She, along with Holland, the United States, and an alleged Jewish cabal, would all be destroyed.
Van Gogh’s murder rocked the nation that had long considered itself a bastion of tolerance.
The reverberations eventually reached writer Ian Buruma, a Dutch national who left his home country at age 24 in 1975. Buruma’s return to his native land and exploration of Holland during the time of the murder forms the basis for the provocative Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.
The text is a rich one, filled with profiles of individuals: Hirsi Ali, whose story Buruma recounts in great detail; murdered right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn; and both protagonists in the drama. While the profiles are well written and engaging, Buruma is not as concerned with individual stories as he is in showing how these people reflect, shape and collide with different strains of Dutch culture and identity.
Holland, according to Buruma, is at once a staid and highly volatile country. The arrival of large numbers of immigrants in several waves, a liberal tradition of welcoming foreigners, an ethos of acceptance of all kinds of behavior, and shame at the nation’s complicity with the Nazi regime during World War II are all significant ingredients in the stew of Dutch identity.
Buruma has spent much of his adult life in Asia and has a monthly commentary series called Crossing Cultures. His efforts to do just that in Holland are visible throughout the book, a work in which his linguistic dexterity and powers of observation are on full display. In a description of Hirsi Ali, for example, Buruma explains how her admirers and detractors view her before tracing her gradual evolution from an observant and somewhat cowed Muslim woman to an outspoken and secular filmmaker.
He also has a fascinating section in which he describes the rise among Bouyeri’s contemporaries, many of whom, like the murderer, are second-generation Muslims who actually identify as Dutch even as they hurl invective against the country and threaten its destruction.
Herein lies the rub that Holland confronts: How does a society committed to openness and tolerance tolerate people who have no use for that value, and, in fact, denounce it as the symptom of a diseased society that must be destroyed?
Buruma does not specifically answer the question, but the journey along the way to his ambiguous resolution makes for thought-provoking reading. Part of the value of Murder in Amsterdam is that one gets a primer on the intersections between Dutch immigration policy, conduct during World War II and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as well as a meditation on how the ingredients in the spicy Dutch identity stew travel to other lands. Although the book is not about their country, readers in Denmark who lived through the cartoon controversy sparked by images of Mohammed may find themselves nodding in affirmation while reading the work.
If there is to be a resolution, it may lie in the approach taken by Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen. Buruma approvingly quotes a speech Cohen gave in which he linked the exclusion of his Jewish mother during World War II to that of Muslims today.
While commentators on several sides of the political divide and cultural spectrum criticized the mayor – Buruma notes that Cohen appeared in both Bouyeri’s letters and as a target of Van Gogh’s scathing attacks – his search for common ground may be the last best chance Holland and other nations have for finding accord with those who do not hew to their values and vision of society.