Murder in Amsterdam

My father lived in Amsterdam for five years. Every time I went over to see him I was asked by friends if I was intending to smoke large amounts of dope and/or have sex with large amounts of prostitutes. Amsterdam’s image is of a party town. English stag parties descend on the city every weekend to take advantage of a supposed liberalism which many of them would abhor if it were introduced in their home country.

The image is misleading, though. The red light is confined to a few areas of the city. People work hard in the Dam. My father wrote, ‘For sure, they don’t like freeloaders. It’s pump or drown. Do what you want otherwise, but take your turn at the pump.’ He described what he saw as a ‘deeper coldness in the Dutch character.’

Perhaps it’s this coldness that accounts for the seething resentments towards immigrants and immigration. But then, this exists in every country. In Britain, my homeland, people sit in pubs and go on about how the asylum seekers are milking our benefits system while at the same time taking all our jobs – a nice little conjuring trick if you can manage it.

In Holland there are concerns regarding integration. The Dutch right claims that Muslim immigrants are living in Holland with no intention of integrating with Dutch culture. They set up little dish cities on the edge of town, sign on for state subsidies and spend their time watching Turkish and Moroccan soap opera. There is a conspiracy theory that Muslim immigrants compromise a fifth column aimed at turning Europe into Eurabia and installing a new Caliphate. Once confined to the fevered edges of political debate, this paranoid lie has seeped into the mainstream. Thanks to Bat Ye’or, Oriana Fallaci and Melanie Phillips, the Eurabia theory is gaining ground.

Then in November 2004 a Dutch-Moroccan man, Mohammed Bouyeri, shot and killed the film director Theo van Gogh. He then took out a letter addressed to the then Dutch politician Aayan Hirsi Ali and pinned it to the corpse’s chest. The letter explained that van Gogh had been murdered because he had directed Submission Part 1, a film critical of Islam. The letter warned that Hirsi Ali would be next.

Into the fallout stepped Ian Buruma. His book, which was shortlisted for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize, reads like a novel. He brings the main players from the sterile objectivity of reportage to the full-blooded life of fiction. Like many good fiction writers, he starts with first impressions, then goes back through the roots of his character’s past. Pim Fortuyn, the camp and egotistical rightwing politician, appears as a strange and enigmatic outsider who mocks the ruling classes while desperate to join them. Theo van Gogh comes off as an overweight, bellowing, crazily funny car-crash of a man, a Boris Johnson for the art world. Only Hirsi Ali appears as she does in standard accounts; a calm and collected beauty with a powerful mind. Going back through decades of Dutch history, Buruma reminds me of Stephen King in the manner in which he shows that the lives of disparate and opposed people – Fortuyn, Bouyeri, van Gogh – cross and change each other in small yet significant ways.

Buruma himself comes across as a private eye, coaxed out of retirement for one final case. He pounds the streets of Amsterdam and Utrecht, trying to find the answers, and interviewing everyone from the friends of Theo van Gogh to Moroccan immigrants to Islamist historians. What made Bouyeri kill van Gogh? Multiculturalism? Islamophobia? Mental illness? Why?

Big events like this always prompt a call for a ‘debate about multiculturalism,’ as if multiculturalism is this new thing that was invented by some liberal think tank in the 1990s. The subtext is that multiculturalism is something that can be reversed. Yet every society is multicultural, and always has been; America, in particular, owes its economic success to generations of diverse labour. With the exception of isolated tribes, there has never been a complete monoculture – and attempts to establish one generally end in the death camp.

However, Buruma’s explorations around this idea are interesting. A psychiatrist shares his theory that people who come to very liberal societies like Holland from very closed and theocratic countries like Iran succumb to a kind of cultural schizophrenia that manifests as real mental illness. Holland is probably the freest society in the world, and religious societies the most repressive. Muslim immigration into Holland made Amsterdam the city where the Apollonian and Dionysiac halves of the human psyche come together and do battle. Freedom can be scary. Aayan Hirsi Ali’s sister Haweya told Aayan that living in the West was like being in a room without walls.

Now we come to a notable flaw of Murder in Amsterdam. Buruma is a fair man and will bend over backwards to see your point of view. He distrusts strong opinions and covers the text in layers of ambiguity and nuance. There’s nothing wrong with that; nuance is a fine quality in a political writer. But Buruma lets himself slide into a fashionable moral equivalence between religious fundamentalism and people who are against religious fundamentalism. Nick Cohen picked up on it immediately:

Anxiety about causing offence, however, brings with it the danger of creating an imaginary, communalist bloc – the Muslims, in our case – and betraying the very people who have most right to expect your support.
For all his subtlety and seriousness, Buruma falls into the trap and is uncomfortable with brown-skinned people who take ideas of human freedom too literally. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose film for van Gogh on the treatment of Muslim women provoked his murder, tells him that there can be no colour bar on feminist freedoms, Buruma says that “one can’t help sensing that in her battle for secularism, there are hints of zealousness, echoes perhaps of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood”. There is a revealing slipperiness in that sentence: the use of “one can’t help sensing” instead of “I think”; and the deft deployment of a “perhaps” to slip in the slur that those who believe in the emancipation of women are the moral equivalents of those who would keep them subjugated. Murder in Amsterdam is well written, well researched and often wise, but a faint whiff of intellectual cowardice rises from its pages none the less.

Accompanying this is the sense that Buruma would rather jump through hoops of burning flame rather than commit himself to a coherent opinion. Bouyeri, at his trial, explained his crime this way:

He was obligated to ‘cut off the heads of all who insult Allah and his prophet’ by the same divine law that didn’t allow him ‘to live in this country, or any country where free speech is allowed… ‘You can send all your psychologists and all your psychiatrists and all your experts, but I’m telling you, you will never understand. You will never understand. And I’m telling you, if I had the chance to be freed and the chance to repeat what I did on the second of November, wallahi [by Allah] I’m telling you, I would do exactly the same.

Buruma knows that wallahi means ‘by Allah,’ and yet he can’t acknowledge that religious faith was a factor, if not the factor, in Bouyeri’s actions. He is not alone. Good and intelligent people, who know politics inside out, will go to any lengths to avoid criticising religious faith – or even discussing it altogether.

Islamism is a religious movement that is not supported by most Muslims and that counts Muslims as the bulk of its victims. Yet people talk about terrorism and extremism without ever conceding that the terrorists and extremists may actually mean what they say. I used to think, like Cohen, that this sprang from a well-meaning desire not to be seen as discriminating against Muslims. Now I think it’s mostly down to fear. The opponents of the religious hatred bill in Britain said that the new law, essentially an extension of the blasphemy laws, would lead to a culture of self-censorship. They were too late. It’s already here. There are whips in the liberal soul.

If you have a house party, what do you do when people gatecrash the party, tell you that they hate the party and everything it stands for, that the women in the house should cover themselves from head to toe in sackcloth, that the homosexuals and Jews at the party should leave immediately on pain of death, and that all your drink should be poured away – and that if you argue with them, they’ll kill you?

A friend of van Gogh’s told Buruma that the party of Amsterdam had finally died.

What distressed him, more than anything, was the end of a particular way of life, a kind of ‘free-spirited anarchism’ full of ‘humor and cabaret’, a life where it was possible to make fun of things, to offend people without the fear of violence. ‘A kind of idyll,’ he sighed, had come to an end.

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