Sunday, June 10, 2007

Murder in Amsterdam

Europe, Multiculturalism, Immigration, Islam. Yawn! Every second magazine, almost every single week has a long article, essay or book review on the subject. All saying the same thing over and over again depending on what their established political position is. Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and Limits of Tolerance is predictable alright in this sense but only when it tackles the general political issues. For the rest, it is a riveting account of what really happened in Amsterdam three years ago with fascinating character portraits of the three principals involved - Theo Van Gogh the murdered filmmaker and a professional trouble maker, Momammed Boyeuri the fanatic and the murderer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the charismatic refugee politician and anti-Islam activist. The most remarkable part of the book is the way Buruma puts the story into social and political context. It then also becomes a fantastic introduction to contemporary Dutch society and politics.

The Dutch have a very stereotypical image for people who have never been there or aren't actively interested in Dutch society or history. It is like a place where Vincent Vega (in Pulp Fiction) went to. A place where one can get cheap drugs and easy sex. Buruma shows the reader through these stereotypes, though in the process he manages to make the whole thing even more colourful than the Vincent Vega stereotype. So it is not everywhere that a colourful and flamboyantly gay politician boasting of his sexual adventures in public will run an election on a traditionally right wing platform. That's Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered by a confused animal rights fanatic (yes you heard it right!) for reasons still quite obscure. He had become a very popular figure in Dutch politics, not least because of his oppositional stance on muslim immigration. He was so popular in fact that his death reportedly prompted scenes similar to Princess Diana funeral!

Then there is the filmmaker Van Gogh himself. A self-proclaimed trouble maker, "a village idiot" he used to say such things in the public that would have ended the career of comedians and journalists elsewhere. His favourite adjective for muslims was "goatfuckers." He once called Jesus "a rotten fish from Nazareth" and made even more absurd and tasteless remarks about some Jewish politicians and public figures. It is also very strange and I think it can happen only in Holland that a major Jewish politician (by the name of Job Cohen) invoked the name of Anne Frank and Nazi's treatment of Jews while talking about the plight of Muslims in contemporary Dutch society. Van Gogh obviously didn't like these kind of remarks.

Buruma also shows that there has been a long tradition of liberalism in the Dutch society in which people always felt that "everything has to be said" and that it was difficult for recent immigrants to grasp. He speculates about its origins:

The insistence on total frankness, the idea that tact is a form of hypocrisy, and that everything, no matter how sensitive, should be stated openly, with no holds barred, the elevation of bluntness to a kind of moral ideal; this willful lack of delicacy is a common trait in Dutch behaviour. Perhaps its roots are in Protestant pietism, a reaction to what was seen as glib Catholic hypocrisy. Private confession had to become public. Discretion was a sign of holding back the truth, of dishonesty. Whether it is a national trait or not, Theo van Gogh exemplified it. It explains his cruelty, but also his passion for free speech, and his defense of those whose freedoms he felt were being threatened.

Buruma also talks about a Dutch novelist Hermans who in one of his books called Catholics, "the filthiest, creepiest, most deluded, treacherous part of our nation. But they fuck away! Like rabbits, rats, fleas, lice. And they don't emigrate!"

The part of the book dealing with the fanatic is straightforward and a well-known, well-rehearsed "My Son the Fanatic" story that we have seen and read so many times before. The story of how fanatical religion exploits personal ressentiments. This has almost become a cliche. Even there the Dutch were really not prepared for what came for them. At the Court trial of Mohammed B. Buruma notes:
To the policemen who arrested him, he said that he had shot at them "fully intending to kill them, and to be killed." This statement unleashed an extraordinary outburst of emotion among the policemen. Tears ran down their cheeks as they fell into each other's arms. Heads were stroked and backs patted. They were traumatized, so it was reported, kept awake by nightmares, and had frequent fits of crying. The idea of a suicidal killer in the middle of Amsterdam was just too much to bear.

His discussion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the charismatic Dutch politician and a "renegade" muslim apostate, skirts familiar territory too. She has been the subject of so many magazine profiles and essays and book reviews that there is hardly anything new to be said about her anymore. In the end Buruma makes this remark which I found rather troublesome and which to me summarises all the problems with soft-gloved liberal responses to political Islam.
In this limited context, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was no Voltaire. For Voltaire had flung his insults at the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions of eighteenth-century France, while Ayaan risked offending only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe.

In the end one closes the book with a tinge of optimism, with a feeling that things are after all not as bad it initially looked. I was specially struck by the story of the Jewish politician who dared invoke the parallels between the Nazi persecution of Jews and the treatment of Muslims in contemporary Holland. That's Goodwill taken to an extreme and so long as there are people like him on either sides things can only get better. One also gets the sense that the Dutch society is essentially an open, liberal and tolerant society with no rigid monolithic ideas about national culture or some such thing. In fact there are some funny passages about people struggling to find a collective Dutch national identity. (In the end the only thing they seem to find is football.) Buruma says:
Open displays of patriotism have become a taboo in post-World War II Europe, except on the soccer field. It is as if there, and only there, all the forbidden tribal sentiments are allowed to be vented in massive displays of flag waving, anthem singing, and primitive warrior worship. When Holland plays Germany, thousands of men, women and children don their royalist orange uniforms to do battle with the traditional foe, the enemy whose very existence allows the Dutch to adopt a self-regarding national identity: the liberal, open, tolerant, free-spirited Dutch, versus the mechanical, disciplined, authoritarian Teutons. When Holland beat Germany in the European cup finals in 1988, more people came out to celebrate in the streets of Amsterdam than on the day of liberation in 1945.

Overall a fantastic whirlwind tour of contemporary Holland, worth reading even if you are bored with endless talks about Europe and "the Muslim Question." btw, there was a long debate on this topic on sign and sight. Didn't really follow it but looked interesting.

Finally some remarks about the controversial short film in question, Submission (link to youtube which has the complete film.) I found it remarkably dull and rather pointless and shallow. Actually I will just link to this excellent review by Dennis Lim in Village Voice.

The movie that led to the death of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh lasts 11 minutes and is unlikely to influence anyone's views on its subject—the treatment of women in traditional Islamic society. As fatwa triggers go, Submission: Part 1 (available at is no Satanic Verses, and its laziness as both art and protest is precisely what gives this short its unsettling, unwitting power. It's depressing to think that this morsel of glib effrontery could pass as a serious critique of conservative Islam—and horrifying to realize that it provoked someone to murder.
Artists from Abbas Kiarostami to Shirin Neshat to Ousmane Sembene have confronted the misogyny of conservative Islam in ways that are at once more damning and less willfully profane. Van Gogh's film, which aired on Dutch TV in August, plainly hopes to inspire not argument but anger. Submission and its dire aftermath are symptomatic of a contradictory culture where the official myth of multiculturalism has finally collapsed under the weight of street-level racism and long-simmering hatreds on the part of both the white and non-white populations. As a cycle of retaliatory attacks on mosques and churches rages on in the Netherlands, American neocons, smugly gleeful at the so-called war on terror's decisive entrenchment on European soil, are clamoring to install van Gogh as a martyr. (Weirdly enough, his last completed work was a biopic of his fellow anti-immigration advocate, the assassinated libertarian leader Pim Fortuyn.) In death, van Gogh is a painful symbol for what he so stridently called for in life: the end of tolerance.

I also found this talk by Ian Buruma where he discusses his book and answers audience questions in the end. Rather weirdly the introducer identifies Heinrich Heine as a "British poet"! Link here.


antonia said...

oh job cohen, he's cool, the mayor of Amsterdam. what bugs me to no end that no one ever mentions that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a member of the dutch liberal right wing party, that she is a proud member of some think-tank for mr. Bush and displayed in the end more similarity with Ms. Rice than van Gogh with a village idiot. Van gogh was a kid really. He was harmless actually. The murder was plain bad luck.

These murders, Fortuyn and van Gogh always seem cause those strong reactions in order to prove the dutch wrong, some Schadenfreude: see that's how far you come with allowing weed and your childish tolerance for I quite agree with you that things are not that bad which of course does not mean that they are not open for improvement.

Also to be political right in the Netherlands that's not the same what to rightish means in the USA. Rightish dutch people here are probably considered leftish in the USA, or at least medio-centred. Seems to be quite a good book.

Alok said...

Yes I think too that it was wrong on Hirsi Ali's part to join the right-wing think tank in the US, who are always thinking about which country to attack next under the pretext of "liberating women." She should have remained an independent commentator and writer. It would have been much easier to admire her in that case. This book ends with her leaving Holland because she apparently lied to get the asylum. She was just escaping her arranged marriage. Actually after a spate of reviews and media coverage last year, she is out of the news here in America. I guess it is not as easy to make news here as it is in a smaller country like Holland.

Yes it is a very nice account, specially for non-Dutch people for whom it is primarily intended. He also concludes in the end that the liberal tolerant tradition that the Dutch pride themselves on is worth everything and that it can cut both ways. On one side it can possibly alienate fresh immigrants from different more conservative cultures, while on the other hand it can also leave enough room for them to live freely.