Death of a Liberal Delusion

November 30, 2006

Review of Ian Burma’s Murder in Amsterdam, posted on thetyee.ca on November 2, 2006

Provocateur Theo van Gogh’s murder wasn’t the only ugly end in Amsterdam.
By Daniel Gawthrop

On November 2, 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was riding his bicycle to work on a cold and dreary autumn morning in Amsterdam when a stranger rode up beside him on another bike, pulled out a gun and shot him in the stomach.

Van Gogh fell to the ground. As he struggled in pain to get up, he saw the stranger approach. Ignoring van Gogh’s pleas for mercy, the man pumped several more bullets into him before pulling out a curved machete and slicing open his throat (“as though slashing a tire,” said one witness). Then, after scribbling a note onto a piece of paper, the man pulled out a smaller knife and plunged it into van Gogh’s corpse, pinning the note to his chest.

The note concluded:

I know for sure that you, Oh America, will go down
I know for sure that you, Oh Europe, will go down
I know for sure that you, Oh Netherlands, will go down
I know for sure that you, Hirsi Ali, will go down
I know for sure that you, Oh unbelieving fundamentalist, will go down

As far as post-9-11 moments go, this one ranks right up there with Daniel Pearl, the Abu Ghraib prison photos, the Danish cartoon scandal and, yes, even the London bombings.

It’s not that van Gogh, Vincent’s great-grandnephew and a locally infamous media celebrity/iconoclast, was a particularly important figure. Nor that his assassin, a 26-year-old Moroccan-Dutchman named Mohammed Bouyeri, was all that different from other homicidal Islamists. Yet because of its sheer dramatic impact as socio-political theatre, the murder resonates today because of how it changed the course of history in continental Europe. Van Gogh’s death destroyed the myth of Dutch tolerance, forever besmirching his country’s carefully cultivated image as multicultural paradise and western capital of permissive social progress.

Van Gogh was targeted because of a short film he had made with Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the most prominent critics of Islam in the Netherlands. Hirsi Ali was a recovering Muslim, a born-again atheist who saw the Koran itself as a source of misogynistic violence. The film she made with van Gogh, “Submission”, dramatized the Islamic abuse of women by projecting quotations from the Koran onto the naked bodies of several young women.

A collision of excesses

Shortly after van Gogh’s murder, Ian Buruma—a cosmopolitan expert on colliding cultures, best known for his books on Southeast Asia—returned to the land of his youth to gauge the pulse of the nation. Clearly there was a dark side behind the friendly Dutch façade: the wooden clogs, windmills-and-daffodils clichés of the tourist brochures, the anything-goes liberalism of the red light districts and all-you-can-toke cafes. What had happened to this once tranquil and all-welcoming corner of the world?

Apart from his half-Dutch background, Buruma was ideally suited for such an investigation. In books such as God’s Dust, The Missionary and the Libertine and Occidentalism, he traces the evolving relationships between Eastern and Western cultures and politics, and the impact of change on both native and expatriate populations.

Buruma specializes in debunking clichés, and there was no shortage of material to work with as he forensically picked apart his native land. The trick in Murder in Amsterdam was making sure that, in the overheated aftermath of the murder—a period characterized by a lot of shouting from both sides of the Islam/Enlightenment divide—he didn’t get caught up in either side’s rhetoric or allow his personal memories to dominate his current conclusions.

Buruma achieves this through his usual combination of the keen traveler’s eye, reporter’s curiosity and scholar’s sober reflection. While doing the research, he spoke with just about everyone who may have had a stake in the debate—from the Friends of Theo, as he calls the European free-speechers, to politicians, artists, media celebrities and both progressive and traditional Muslims. The book always keeps one foot in European and Dutch history as it traces the journeys that led van Gogh and Bouyeri to the same bicycle path. Buruma discovers a country that has lost its way.

The ironies abound. It turns out that the film van Gogh just happened to be finishing when Bouyeri caught up with him was 06/05, a Hitchcockian thriller about the May 6, 2002, assassination of Pim Fortuyn—a film that, by its title, implied 9-11 significance. Fortuyn, a right-wing populist who was seeking the presidency, was another Dutch media celebrity/iconoclast—a kindred spirit of van Gogh’s, also notorious for his outspoken critiques of Islam.

The openly gay MP had taken Dutch politics by storm when, during his election campaign, he called for a halt to immigration and branded Islam a “backward” religion. Given the tension that had been mounting between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, Dutch citizens breathed a sigh of relief when it was revealed that Fortuyn’s killer was not a vengeful Islamic extremist but an animal rights activist who resented the politician’s support of factory farming and the fur industry.

Van Gogh, like Pim Fortuyn, was a media-savvy contrarian. He was less known for his films than for his over-the-top commentary on television talk shows and in newspaper and website editorials. A self-styled “village idiot,” he enjoyed pushing buttons and challenging political orthodoxy. His diatribes, on such subjects as the alleged exploitation of the Holocaust by Jewish celebrities and the dangerous presence of a Muslim “fifth column” in Dutch society, seemed calculated to outrage. And they did. When Theo referred to Muslims, even friends, as “goat fuckers,” he was speaking freely with the confidence of impunity that Dutch society guaranteed.

Netherlands can’t escape its history

But it was all a bit much for some Muslims; “Submission,” in particular, was the last straw for Bouyeri.

The son of Moroccan immigrants, Bouyeri was a hothead with an authority problem and a history of violence who was down on his luck and had just converted to Islam. Buruma, attending his trial and reading his journals, saw the angry young man’s peculiar politics as a distinctly Dutch phenomenon.

In his efforts to inspire other Muslims to rise up and “liberate the world from democratic slavery,” Bouyeri’s writings implied that the Knights of Islam would rise from the Netherlands because “the Dutch political system encourages its citizens (especially the allochtonen, that is, the Muslims) to take an active part in the problems of society.”

In this and other ramblings, Buruma heard “echoes of an old Dutch conceit, rooted in a zealous type of Protestantism—the idea that Holland is the world’s moral beacon. Christians used to believe this. As such, it was widely believed, until not so long ago, that the Dutch model of liberalism, multicultural tolerance, sexual permissiveness, and so forth, was like a ray of light shining brightly as an example to the rest of a world still shrouded in darkness. Bouyeri, in a very Dutch delusion of grandeur, expanded his youthful enthusiasm for neighbourhood politics to encompass the fate of mankind. His moralism, though couched in Islamist terms, was part of this tradition.”

To a certain degree, the reader can sympathize with Bouyeri’s alienation as an in-between person who felt he belonged in neither his father’s native Morocco nor the country he was born in. Holland, which had lost 100,000 of its Jews to the Holocaust, officially decried anti-Semitism in all its forms. And yet Dutch society condoned the demonization of Moroccans and Turkish minorities in the media and politics. Career opportunities were few, and all the best jobs and housing went to non-Muslims. Buruma cuts through the smugness of Dutch Enlightenment liberalism to find a society brimming with racism.

“The Enlightenment has a particular appeal to some conservatives because its values are not just universal, but more importantly, ‘ours,’ that is, European, Western values,” he notes. Such smugness is evident in the writings of Het Parool newspaper columnist Theodor Holman, a Friend of Theo who exhorts the government to “shut down those filthy mosques!” “throw those fucking fundamentalists out of the country!” and “sew the butchers up in bags and drop them into the sea!” Such unpleasant sentiments, as Buruma is loath to admit, expressed something that was becoming all too familiar in Holland: “offensiveness projected as a sign of sincerity, the venting of rage as a mark of moral honesty. Theo van Gogh himself, of course, had done much to set this tone.”

As much as he sympathizes with Hirsi Ali, who has gone into permanent hiding as her book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam climbs the charts, Buruma finds that her argument, and those of supporters such as Iranian immigrant Afshin Ellian, provides no solution to the impasse. “Attacking religion cannot be the answer,” he says, “for the real threat to a mixed society will come when the mainstream of non-revolutionary Muslims has lost all hope of feeling at home.”

There may in fact be no ultimate solution to the cultural divide. But Buruma points to a possible better way with Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen’s answer on the question of Muslim/non-Muslim reconciliation. Cohen, one of Time magazine’s European heroes for 2005, argues that Muslims must be integrated into Dutch society through their religion, not in isolation of it, because their faith “is just about the only anchor they have when they enter Dutch society in the 21st century.”

Trouble in a quiet liberal backwater

Murder in Amsterdam describes the modern struggles of a peace-loving, multicultural western democracy. A quiet place dominated by its middle class and united by collective identity with the Great Outdoors. A place where, until recently, not much ever happened.

Sound familiar? Reading this book, I couldn’t help wondering what Vancouver’s multicultural mosaic would look like under similar circumstances. It could never happen. To begin with, what skeletons of war or racist brutality do we have to compare with the Dutch colonial or European World War II experience? Apart from Japanese internment, the Chinese head tax and the Komagata Maru incident, not much. Despite the injustice of these events, their long-term psychological fallout across Canada does not begin to compare with that of the Holocaust on the people of Europe.

As former subjects of the British Empire, Canadians don’t have to contend with large immigrant populations from countries we once ruled. The Chinese workers who emigrated to British Columbia were not a “guest worker” class like the Moroccans and Turks in Holland, their very presence a reminder of liberal guilt. In Canada, most Muslims belong to the middle class. So, unlike the cauldron of resentment Buruma found in the second- and third-generation Moroccan-Dutch residents of Amsterdam’s “dish cities” (impoverished immigrant enclaves cluttered with television satellite dishes that connect the people to their homelands), Vancouver has no equivalent community of aggrieved ethnic residents just waiting to be drafted for jihad.

Indeed, our city’s ethnic minorities are dominated by East Asians who are more likely to complain about panhandlers than attack anyone for their religious faith.

Notwithstanding last summer’s arrest of alleged plotters in Toronto, Canada has yet to be confronted by Islamic terrorism’s apocalyptic violence on its own soil. We remain blissfully unaffected by the kulturkampf that has plagued western Europe. Up to now, no government office in Canada has declared, like France, that grown women shall not wear the hijab in any official institution. No influential politician has suggested, as Britain’s ex-foreign secretary Jack Straw has done, that Muslim women who visit his office should take off their headscarves.

No Canadian author has been put on trial for his or her writings, as happened in Turkey when Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted for speaking out about the Armenian genocide. (Turkey’s application for EU membership is another source of European angst due to the fear of Islam, and the Nobel committee’s decision to award this year’s Prize for Literature to Pamuk may have been a political message in itself. But that’s another story.)

Despite the intimidation that typically follows the publication of books like Toronto writer Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam, no Canadian celebrities have been killed or forced to go into permanent hiding because of their opposition to Islamism—the revivalist, morally conservative brand of Islamic faith that seeks to impose Islamic values in all spheres of life.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

As Hans Magnus Enzensberger put it in “Radical Losers,” a Der Spiegel article published on the first anniversary of van Gogh’s murder, Islamism is not a political movement because “it makes no negotiable demands.” Rather, it harbours people who want “the majority of the planet’s inhabitants—all the unbelievers and apostates—to capitulate or be killed.”

No one should ever be confronted with the consequences of that, as Theo van Gogh and other less provocative victims of terrorism have been. But then, as Buruma concludes in Murder in Amsterdam, the proper response to Islamist fanaticism in Western societies is not to exhort entire Muslim populations to “go back where they came from” or advocate the end of Islam. As tempting as it may be to dismiss all religion because it insults intelligence and causes no end of human suffering (and, as a gay man, I reserve particular scorn for Islam’s more barbaric homophobic excesses), there’s nothing practical or ethical about alienating an entire population for its religious beliefs when most Muslims are law-abiding, generous and engaged citizens.

That’s the most important message of Buruma’s intriguing book: demonizing the Other never brings us closer to understanding him.

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