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

Atlantic, pp.278, 12.99

The Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh had quite a send-off. As per the plans he drew up himself before his death, the memorial party organised by the Friends of Theo was adorned with a rock band, comedians, miniskirted cigarette girls, and female guests in twin-sets and pearls — something Van Gogh had found an erotic turn-on. A wooden coffin rotated on a platform surrounded by champagne bottles, and the room was scattered with ‘phallic cacti’.

On stage were two stuffed goats, supposedly there for anyone who felt the urge to have sex with one. This alluded, defiantly, to what had caused all the trouble in the first place. ‘Goat-f****r’ was Van Gogh’s preferred term for a Muslim. And not long previously, Van Gogh had been calmly shot off his bicycle in the street, and then all but decapitated, by a 26-year-old Dutch Moroccan called Mohammed Bouyeri.

Bouyeri used a knife to attach an open letter to Van Gogh’s chest, addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the radical Somali-born politician with whom Van Gogh had made a film called Submission, featuring verses from the Koran projected onto the naked bodies of young women. Bouyeri’s letter denounced ‘Zionists’, ‘Crusaders’, the Jewish cabal that runs the Netherlands, and announced that Islam would prevail ‘through the blood of martyrs’. As he remarked to a passer-by while committing the murder, ‘Now you know what you people can expect in the future.’

Buruma returned to Holland on a magazine assignment after Van Gogh’s death. ‘There was something unhinged about the Netherlands in the winter of 2004, and I wanted to understand it better,’ he writes. Why, he wonders, is a place whose benign traditions of liberal negotiation, a place whose historical character has been, as he puts it, satisfait, seen an irruption of violence and irrationality. The cover image — a downed bicycle — is a wry little metonym.

This interesting short book is neither quite a work of history nor quite a polemical essay; rather, it’s a meandering, journalistic attempt to put these events in the context of Holland’s history, distinct intellectual traditions and political set-up. Buruma himself was born in Holland, lived there until his mid-twenties, and knew Theo Van Gogh somewhat as a child, so his investigations into the murder are further coloured by elements of autobiography and even travelogue.

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Holland used to run its polity through a negotiation between urbane, semi-aristocratic senior representatives of the three ‘pillars’ of its society: the Protestants, the Catholics and the Socialists. The great and the good were modern-day descendents of the haut-bourgeois regenten who arranged its affairs in the days of the 17th century, ‘a virtuous elite of Our Kind of People discreetly wielding power, supposedly for the common good, and brooking no interference’. With mass immigration and multiculturalism, ‘Our Kind of People’ became a harder notion to sustain: paving the way for the populist politics of Pim Fortuyn. ‘Successive Dutch governments,’ he writes, ‘had been too tolerant of intolerance.’ Fortuyn, whom his friend Van Gogh called ‘the divine baldy’, and Buruma describes as ‘part walking penis, part phony aristocrat’, caught a demagogic wave. When he was assassinated, this eccentric character — a sort of gay, Dutch-specific Margaret Thatcher — was mourned as an almost Christ-like figure.

Then, of course, there is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim whose radical, feminist rejection of Islam represented a vigorous counter to the ameliorist traditions of liberal debate on multiculturalism. Van Gogh himself seems to have been a provocateur more than an ideologue: the equivalent of a ‘shock-jock’ radio personality. As a child, Buruma reports, he used to stand in his garden and declaim speeches to ‘my fellow countrymen’, and made a short film of his friends eating ‘faeces’ made of pulped-up ginger-snaps. As an adult he made a film in which a gun was discharged into a woman’s vagina, and a man was seen stuffing cats into a washing machine. He liked to make anti-Semitic remarks — particularly provocative in a country where, as Buruma puts it, a little clumsily, ‘If Clio is the muse of history, the ghostly presence of Anne Frank has hovered over the collective memory of Nazi occupation.’ It’s hard not to feel that Van Gogh was, in plain terms, a bit of a dick.

Yet the view he took was that his provocations were licensed by his own foolishness, that he rejoiced in being ‘the village idiot’. As Buruma explains, too, there is a tradition of extreme invective — scheld- kritieken, or ‘abusive criticism’ — in Dutch intellectual life that goes back at least to the late 19th century.

Other traditions are also germane. As much as Holland’s recent history is inflected by the memory of Nazi occupation, in the longer run Holland was the cradle of the European Enlightenment, and an early and more extreme adopter of the intellectual and political liberties that flowed from it. In the murder of Theo Van Gogh, Buruma suggests, it was seeing a violent manifestation of the counter-Enlightenment.

The pressures that led to this had to do, he argues, with the growth of immigration. A country that had, at least until the second world war, been historically very accommodating of its Jewish immigration, had also assimilated two waves of mass Surinamese immigrants from the former Dutch Guiana. ‘They,’ he writes drolly, ‘always speak Dutch, excel at soccer, and by and large have been moving steadily into the middle class.’ (Soccer, incidentally, looms large in this book. It was soccer anthems that the crowd sung at Fortuyn’s funeral; a soccer stadium that was the venue for the funeral of the Dutch pop singer André Hazes; and Buruma’s investigations take him to more than one soccer game, lovingly described.)

It was with the more recent arrival of very large numbers of Muslim immigrants from Turkey, Morocco and the Middle East, Buruma argues, that the structure of Dutch society began to change. In 1999, 45 per cent of the population of Amsterdam was of foreign origin, projected to rise to 52 per cent by 2015, most of them Muslim. These communities have been far less well integrated, have found it far harder to get on in Dutch society, and formed the so-called ‘dish cities’ (linked to their countries of origin through their satellite dishes) in the working-class suburbs.

Buruma sometimes inclines to pop psychology and zeitgeist talk rather than rigorous analysis. It can lead him to be more impressionistic than one would like. Pim Fortuyn’s political position was ‘a nostalgic dream born of his own sense of isolation’. Dutch concerns about the legacy of occupation is said to be ‘a reflection of the guilty conscience of a people who had been, on the whole, neither wholly good nor wholly bad’. He generalises about the ‘sense of entitlement’ of ‘some’ immigrants in European welfare states; offers that an aggressive rap lyric is both ‘oddly Dutch and also typical of a particular type of immigrant’s rage’; speculates on the reason for the high incidence of schizophrenia in Muslim males in Europe, and so on.

But he is more qualified than most to pronounce on the character of life in Holland. His reporting can’t be faulted; he writes, for the most part, elegantly, and he gives a good and thought-provoking sense of the complexity of the cross-currents that inform this particular, and particularly strange, historical moment.

Buruma is not long on offering solutions, but he frames the problems acutely. ‘What happened in this small corner of northwestern Europe could happen anywhere,’ he warns in conclusion,
216;as long as young men and women feel that death is their only way home.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated