Bitter Ironies

Demonstrators show images of slain politician Pim Fortuyn, top center, and slain filmmaker  Theo van Gogh, left and top right, outside a court in Amsterdam, July 26, 2005.
Demonstrators show images of slain politician Pim Fortuyn, top center, and slain filmmaker Theo van Gogh, left and top right, outside a court in Amsterdam, July 26, 2005. (Evert Elzinga / Ap)

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Reviewed by Peter Beinart
Sunday, September 24, 2006

MURDER IN AMSTERDAM

The Death of Theo van Gogh

And the Limits of Tolerance

By Ian Buruma

Penguin Press. 278 pp. $24.95

In America, radical Islam is a foreign policy problem. It is, in the Bush administration's familiar litany, the successor to Nazism and communism: an alien ideology, bred overseas, that threatens to bring destruction to America's shores. But in Europe, as Ian Buruma explains in Murder in Amsterdam , radical Islam is something different: less a foreign policy problem than a domestic one. It is alien but also strangely intimate. Islam, as Buruma notes -- following the French scholar Olivier Roy -- has (again) become a European religion. And while Europeans may be horrified by its mutant totalitarian strain, they can hardly view totalitarianism with innocent eyes, given that it too has deep roots in European soil.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, perhaps nowhere has Europe's Islamic question been as fraught as in Holland. First, in May 2002, Pim Fortuyn, Holland's most controversial politician and a fierce opponent of Muslim immigration, was murdered. When the murderer turned out to be an animal rights fanatic, not a jihadist, the Dutch let out a sigh of relief. But then, more than two years later, another flamboyant anti-Muslim crusader, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was murdered as well -- this time by a 26-year-old Dutch Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri shot van Gogh repeatedly, cut his throat with a curved machete and pinned a note to the corpse calling for holy war and the murder of other prominent citizens. Walking away from the scene, he said, "Now you know what you people can expect in the future."

Soon after that, Buruma, a prominent American journalist born in Holland, went to his homeland to investigate. The result was a New Yorker article published in January 2005 and now expanded into a book.

For better and worse, Murder in Amsterdam still reads like a New Yorker article. At book length, its lack of a clear structure is problematic. The order in which characters appear sometimes seems random, and, in typical New Yorker style, Buruma's opinions remain somewhat submerged, confined to asides here and there. Despite the book's subtitle, The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance , Buruma never quite explains what he thinks those limits are. He nicely frames the question: Do Enlightenment values require that anti-Enlightenment values be respected or fought? But he remains frustratingly coy about the answer.

Murder in Amsterdam 's strength is less as a meditation on the limits of tolerance than as a meditation on Holland. When Americans write about Islam in Europe, they often generalize across the continent, and they often lapse into clichés: European society is secular, morally permissive, deracinated, self-loathing. Buruma's portrait of Holland is more granular and more interesting. He portrays a society that may seem bland and proper but has a thirst for vicious satire. When van Gogh, in shocking terms, accused Muslims of bestiality and claimed a Jewish antagonist was sexually aroused by the Holocaust, Buruma argues that he was tapping into a peculiarly Dutch tradition: a blend of venom and irony in which you can say virtually anything as long as you do so with a wink. It is partly that ironic culture -- politics less as persuasion than as theater -- that Buruma argues is being contested in Holland today.

For jihadist fanatics such as Bouyeri and the pursuers of Salman Rushdie, insulting Islam is a crime that merits death. But interestingly, it is not merely jihadists who distrust the Dutch ironic style. So do passionate anti-Islamists, such as the Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who denounce Dutch society for not taking politics seriously enough, for not acknowledging the life-or-death struggle between Enlightenment values and fanatical Islamism taking place on their soil. Buruma compares Hirsi Ali to an ex-communist such as Arthur Koestler, who struggled to convince easy-going Western liberals to become militants in liberalism's cause -- because evil was real, because he had seen what they could not believe.

But while Buruma knows that certain outsiders (and many on the American right) see the Dutch as happy-go-lucky relativists unwilling to fight for -- or even believe in -- much of anything, his view is richer and more complex. Holland's conversion to secular, values-neutral liberalism, he notes, is a post-1960s phenomenon. And it may be less deeply rooted than it appears. If jihadists such as Bouyeri harbor fantasies about purified Islam, many Dutch secretly harbor purification fantasies of their own, of a "rural, joyous, traditional, and white" country -- a country that replaces anything-goes relativism with cultural and moral certainty. Watching hordes of Dutch soccer fans mocking a rival team known as the "Jews Club" by hissing -- and thus imitating the sound of gas -- Buruma is reminded that brutality and fanaticism are not recent imports to this tidy corner of Northwestern Europe. Hirsi Ali may want the Dutch to stand up for their values, but Buruma leaves the reader vaguely uneasy about what those values really are. ยท

Peter Beinart is editor-at-large of the New Republic and author of "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again."


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