Tragic Jam

Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (Penguin, 2006), by Ian Buruma, is, if nothing else, a top-notch work of journalism. Mr Buruma, who was born and raised in the Netherlands but whose English mother assured that that he would be Anglophone, has put together a comprehensive dossier on the van Gogh case. As you may recall, filmmaker, talk-show host and social hatpin Theo van Gogh was horrifically murdered on the morning of 2 November, 2004 by a fellow Nederlander of Moroccan descent, Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri fully expected to be killed in the aftermath, but he was taken captive, duly tried, and given a sentence of life imprisonment. The crime appeared to polarize the nation, but Mr Buruma's book makes it very clear that tensions and alliances alike run along multidimensional lines toward a pandemonium of inconsistency and contradiction. That is the great value of his book. Having read Murder in Amsterdam for the case study that it is, and chased the largely conflicted men and women who are its subjects toward some kind of resolution in your own mind, you will be in fine shape to deal with the Theo van Gogh show when it comes to a venue near you, as it very well may.

Murder in Amsterdam raises a curtain on one of the most pervasive but least examined problems of modern liberal democracy: the gulf between the governing classes and the governed. In any large democracy that you care to examine, government is in the hands of people whose adult lives are dedicated to governing. They are either in the government, attached to it, or opposed to it. Sometimes, individuals come from privileged economic classes, but all have some experience at elite schools. It is not that people in government are much wealthier than ordinary folks. It's rather that their lives have so little in common with the commons'. As the leaders of democracies, they must learn how to address the electorate. But what they actually do is far more closely determined by currents within the sphere of government itself.

If conservative governments are given to the vice of standing by while plutocrats amass resources, liberal governments err by trying to improve things without thinking through the implications - often, without knowing what to think. The substantial Moroccan presence in the Netherlands is the result of inattentive benevolence. After World War II, guest workers were recruited for jobs at the bottom of the labor ladder, to speed Europe's reconstruction of its economy. These guest workers were expected to go home when the work had been done, but they did not go home, and, eventually, most European governments allowed them to bring their families to live in what was now an adopted country. As the French discovered last year, you can't stop there. You can't expect, completely without reason, that the children of the former guest workers, often born in the new country and in some cases citizens by virtue of that fact, will find decent jobs and housing on their own. The common people of Europe were not consulted about the handling of the guest worker phenomenon. Their objections, such as they were, were branded as regrettable and reactionary - and dismissed. The "Europeans" in Europe have complained about the results - the degradation of working-class neighborhoods, the rise in low-grade crime, the mere presence of strange faces - but they have not provided their leaders with the political will to do anything to fix the problem. Wherefore it has simply festered for well over a quarter-century.

What separated the governors from the governed as this crisis loomed? The governments' horror of repeating fascist atrocities. What would the mass deportation of guest workers have looked like? And who would have been the first to try it? These anxieties are quite understandable. But they were not shared by the mass of citizens, many of whom - bigoted or uneducated and in any case incapable of putting themselves and the Nazis in the same thought - would have been only too happy to ship off the aliens from their midst.

The fairly recent development of Radical Islam has provided a lethally efficient charge to ignite the situation's potential for disaster. Radical Islam is a heretical deviant of the strict Wahhabi orthodoxy of Saudi Arabia (which has funded the expansion of Wahhabism throughout the Mideast and Africa). It displaces Islam's manifold ethical prescriptions with a crusading zeal that, in its most virulent form, seeks to wipe all non-believers from the face of the earth. In Western terms, it is a hopelessly Romantic mission, attractive only to troubled losers, certain never to succeed at its principal goal. This is not to say, however, that it will be without effect. The death of Theo van Gogh, like the bombings in London, Madrid, and Bali, like the events of 9/11, shows the terrible damage that a doomed conspiracy can wreak.  

Radical Islam would be nothing more than a fringe group - or, not even that, a splatter of radical enclaves here and there throughout Europe and the Mideast - if it were not for the Internet. Via the Internet, Mohammed Bouyeri acquired DVDs of jihadi assassinations, including that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He appears to have studied the Koran, in Nederlands and English, with the help of Web pages written by Radical clerics. He learned all about Theo van Gogh's schedule from the Internet as well.

We have a Europe, then, beset by a "European" population that does not support its leaders on many fronts but most acutely with respect to the problem of a large Muslim presence; and a Muslim population that must endure exclusion from mainstream society that is enforced by resentful "Europeans" in the teeth of government palaver about citizenship and equality. Whether civil society will be able to withstand the divisive pressures inherent in this tragic jam remains to be seen, but we can be sure that killers like Mohammed Bouyeri and Volkert van der Graaf will periodically and effectively emerge.

On 6 May, 2002, van der Graaf, a white man offended by the flamboyance of Pim Fortuyn, the rising nativist leader whose popularity was not in the least dimmed by his trumpeted homosexuality, shot Fortuyn five times in the head and neck. Van der Graaf was hardly striking a blow for Muslims, but he appears to have been every bit as radical about own preoccupations (animal rights) as Mohammed Bouyeri was about his. And, like Bouyeri, he had downloaded maps and schedules from the Internet: he knew what he was doing. The only difference between the two killings was that the Netherlands are not home to a large and disliked population of animal-rights advocates. Van der Graaf was a nut. So was Bouyeri, but Bouyeri committed his crime in the name of Islam - something that he had no right to do - and in the process implicated every Muslim in the Netherlands.


Murder in Amsterdam is elegantly structured. Of its seven chapters, the second, third, fifth and sixth focus on the key people in this affair: van Gogh, Fortuyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Mohammed Bouyeri. Hirsi Ali, whose exceptionally tortuous career I decline to summarize here, came, as a feminist, politician, and filmmaker in the Netherlands, to equate Islam with Radical Islam. She is, in a word, a Radical Anti-Islamist. It is characteristic of Radical Anti-Islamists to reject any kind of violence, but otherwise the lady's thinking does not appear to be significantly clearer than Bouyeri's. It simply manipulates a different fistful of principles. By participating in the making of her film, Submission - in which verses from the Koran are projected upon the naked bodies of women - Theo van Gogh appears to have signed his own death warrant. Never a very consistent thinker himself, van Gogh warned his countrymen against the Muslim menace but remained unshakably sure of his own safety.

I hesitate to praise Mr Buruma for his patience, because there is nothing plodding or long-winded (for "exhaustive" read "exhausting") about his writing. Patience is nonetheless salient here. It is reflected, first, by the evident comprehensiveness of the book's scope. That's not to say that the author has hoovered up every relevant detail and dumped it into his chapters. Rather, having determined upon a viable scale for his book, he has filled it completely. Even more important, he has clearly savored the complexity of the case. That's the second way in which Mr Buruma shows his patience. He is not pressed to resolve complexities. He writes with as much neutrality as is humanly possible.

In the following, brief paragraph, about the funeral of Pim Fortuyn, watch Mr Buruma weave connections from close observation.

Soccer anthems might seem out of place at the funeral of a politician who never showed the slightest interest in sports. Aida was much more his thing. But on reflection, they are not so strange after all. The stadium has largely replaced the church as a place for community singing and other expressions of collective devotion. And the emotions stirred up by Fortuyn - tribal nostalgia, distrust of outsiders, hero-worship - were precisely those of soccer fans.

(Mr Buruma notes elsewhere that stadiums are now the only places in Europe where it is acceptable to demonstrate nationalist feelings. I had never thought of this as such, but I saw the truth of it at once, as if it had slapped me.)

Murder in Amsterdam is a very important book. It shows us how difficult the political terrain is going to become to navigate in an age when acute feelings of local loyalty contend - sometimes harmoniously, often not - with the globally-accessible localities of the Internet. (September 2006)

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