The Perils of Going Dutch

Read Time:
8m 5sec

The Death of
Theo van Gogh
and the Limits
of ­Tolerance.

By Ian Buruma. Penguin. 266 pages. $­24.95

“First of all you have to say there is provocation, and the guilty one is the one who does the provoking. The response is to always punish the reaction, but if I react, something has happened.” So said the French soccer hero Zinedine Zidane on why he ­head-­butted an Italian opponent during the World Cup final, offering an apology that expressed no regret for his action, which he saw as the defense of his honor against the Italian’s ­insults.

It would surely pain the carefully apolitical Zidane, a ­non-­practicing Muslim born to Algerian immigrants, to be drawn into the aftermath of the 2004 murder, in Amster­dam, of the Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh. But we should note the similar ­cause-­and-­effect reasoning offered by van Gogh’s killer, a young Dutch Muslim (and son of Moroccan immigrants) named Mohammed Bouyeri. It is the calculus of an unpitying absolutist: There is provocation, demanding a crushing ­response.

Bouyeri killed van Gogh and drove into hiding his ­Somali-­born collaborator, the Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for the insult they supposedly dealt to Islam in producing an 11-minute film called Submission. The film, which aired once on Dutch television, showed Muslim women with words from the Qu’ran projected onto their bare skin as they recalled beatings and rapes by male relatives. This was the “provocation.” Language is met not with language but physical violence, the underclass signal to the rest of us that often means we have not been paying ­attention.

Van Gogh’s murder was the most shocking event in Holland in recent years, more shocking, even, than the killing two and a half years earlier of the man who might be dubbed his predecessor in provocation, the gadfly and dandy Pim Fortuyn (about whom van Gogh made a film). Fortuyn was shot in Hilversum days before national elections that made his eponymous party one of the largest in Parliament. Fortuyn campaigned against immigration, by which he meant Muslim immigration, and his contempt for Islam was personal: As a gay man, he despised its homo­­­phobia  and its efforts to undermine traditional Dutch tolerance. To much of the coun­try’s relief, it was a white animal-rights activist (though a Muslim sympathizer) who killed Fortuyn. But with the ritual murder of van ­Gogh—­shot, stabbed, his throat ­cut—­by a Muslim, Dutch postwar multiculturalism seemed on the brink of ­collapse.

Now Ian Buruma has stepped onto the scene. Many of his longtime readers will not know he is Dutch, but will associate him with Japan, China, Britain, and, more broadly, Europe and the clash of East and ­West—­the subjects of his many noteworthy books and essays. But there is no more prominent writer in English who is also Dutch to the bone, and we are fortunate that Buruma has turned his attention to his homeland, almost as if it had become a new country after a long ­absence.

Murder in Amsterdam is a tabloid title, and Buruma presents himself as something of the ­gentleman ­sleuth or boulevardier moving about in Amsterdam, The Hague, and other Dutch towns, consuming many cups of tea and coffee as he carefully draws out his subjects: an excitable ­Iranian-­Dutch law professor who, like Hirsi Ali, is sometimes called an “Enlightenment funda­men­talist”; an ­anti-­Semitic Islamic fundamentalist yet ­law-­abiding Dutch history teacher; other Muslim immigrants and immigrant children, many of whom are well educated; and various Dutch public figures, some of whom call themselves the “Friends of Theo.” It makes for suspenseful reading, and Buruma’s investigations reveal van Gogh to be more complex than either caricature or his enemies would have us believe.

Buruma’s book is notable for its calm nar­rative informed by a total immersion in Dutch language and culture. The analysis isn’t as exceptional; many of the book’s insights into the radicalization of Dutch Islamic youth, for instance, can also be found in public pamphlets produced by the Dutch intelligence service. Perhaps Buruma recognizes that his knowledge of Islam is limited. Instead, he elaborates an idea of Dutchness, a cultural identity he seems to find, to some degree, in everybody he encounters: not just obvious “natives” but also the émigré Hirsi Ali and van Gogh’s ­Dutch-­born ­murderer.

“Dutchness,” for Buruma, has many facets: an obsession with Holland’s moral failures during World War II (all political discus­sions start with or ultimately come back to the war, if only to use it as a glib analogy or invo­cation), sanctimonious moralism, and “a willful lack of delicacy” born of “the idea that tact is a form of hypocrisy.” And there is Dutch irony, which, as Buruma notes, can be used as “an escape from any blame” or “license for irresponsibility.” He means that you can say the most offensive things but hasten to add that you’re kidding. Van Gogh’s brand of irony, however, seems to have been closer in spirit to that dictum famously adopted by Evelyn Waugh: “Never apologize, never explain.”

Bouyeri appears to embody few of the above traits, except perhaps the moralism, which I would argue is no longer particularly Dutch. Still, Buruma searches for his essential Dutchness, and finds it in one of Bouyeri’s Internet ravings, in which he proclaims that the “knights of Islam” will emerge from Holland’s soil. Buruma calls this a “very Dutch delusion of grandeur,” that of the Netherlands as the “world’s moral beacon.” But the national aspect of Bouyeri’s vision seems fairly unimportant, certainly to him. Rather, Bouyeri appears to have learned to stop thinking of the Netherlands altogether; his mind dwells instead in stateless, unworldly ­Islam.

To some of the Dutch, then, nationality is only a placeholder. A Dutch prison imam tells Buruma that “if you get rid of tradition, you still have Islam,” or, to clarify, “Culture is made by human beings. But Islam remains.” This is eerily akin to what that enemy of Islam, Hirsi Ali, says, enthusiastically, of the Enlightenment: that it “strips away culture, and leaves only the human individual.” Hirsi Ali’s interest is the individual; Bouyeri’s, Islam. What the two share is the ease with which they dispose of the first part of each proposition: culture. On Buruma’s evidence, Hirsi Ali, for all her perfect assimilation and perfect Dutch, is hardly more involved in the Netherlands than ­Bouyeri.

Lucid as he is, Buruma runs up against his own Dutch wall. Evidently it is difficult for this Dutchman to imagine compatriots so uninterested in the Dutch character and its maintenance. Fortuyn as well as the “native” Dutch with whom Buruma converses express “yearnings”—a word that appears ­frequently—­for “something that may never really have existed.” Buruma is more ­clear-­eyed and unsentimental than they are, but at the end of the book, he departs from his customary measured tones. Pointing to the innocent Dutch habit of dressing up in the national color, orange, for soccer games, with clogs and brass bands and other gear, Buruma exclaims that this celebration of an “invented country,” like Bouyeri’s violent fantasy, contains the “seeds of destruction.” But what seeds, and what destruction? The thing about the orange men is that they are in on the joke, which, along with the carnival spirit, is as much a Dutch trait as ­any.

In 1975, when Buruma was leaving the Netherlands, I was a child recently arrived in The Hague, the city where he grew up and where I would too. More precisely, I grew up in the “plush extension” of Wassenaar, where Theo van Gogh, 10 years my senior, was raised two streets away, in a house that Buruma visits to chat with Theo’s parents. Buruma’s portrait of the “Wassenaar brat” who, as an adult, still came home to do his laundry hits close to home. But, if anything, I probably had more in common with the young Mohammed Bouyeri. Of course, the fate of a young man who is white and middle class, if neither truly American nor truly Dutch, is preferable to that of the ­dark-­skinned son of a dishwasher, “neither Dutch nor Moroccan,” as one of Bouyeri’s contemporaries described people like ­himself.

Like other Europeans, the Dutch have never made it easy for outsiders to feel at home. What might once have appeared, to them, anyway, to be ­generous—­inviting huge numbers of foreign workers to a safe land where they could provide for their ­families—­now can seem more like using, but heedless using. For decades, European countries carried on as if they could avoid the consequences if those workers stayed, which of course they did. Now, as French scholar Olivier Roy has noted, Islam is a European ­religion.

Theo van Gogh knew “the dangers of violent religious passions,” Buruma writes, but still acted “as though they held no consequences for him.” Yet there was charm in the way Theo spoke his obscene, unruly mind and then tottered off on his bicycle. His kind of insouciant candor is another victim of the age, and perhaps the most poignant aspect of “Dutchness” that now appears ­lost.

—Eric Weinberger

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