What’s going on?
- Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma
Atlantic, 278 pp, £12.99, October 2006, ISBN 1 84354 319 2
Theo van Gogh was murdered while cycling through Amsterdam on his way to work on the morning of 2 November 2004; it was probably no coincidence that this was also the day when George W. Bush was expected to be voted back into office. Van Gogh was a fourth-generation descendant of the painter, but better known in Amsterdam and the rest of the Netherlands as a film-maker, writer, columnist, chat-show host and all-round controversialist, whose favoured symbol was a cactus rather than a sunflower. He annoyed people enormously, and the regular targets of his scathing columns and comments included the queen and her extended family, the teflon Labour mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, the ‘left-wing church’, many of his fellow chat-show hosts and columnists, and various prominent Muslims, Jews and Christians. He was murdered by a young Muslim activist, and his death was to convulse the Netherlands. The first I heard about it as I worked in my office in Leiden University was in a brief email from a mutual contact, a successful businessman and sometime academic who thought the world of Van Gogh and who wrote, as I remember: ‘They’ve got Theo. The heart stands still.’ It was, and remains, a shocking and horrible moment.
Ian Buruma was born in The Hague in 1951, close to where Van Gogh grew up, and emigrated from the Netherlands in 1975, moving on to spend time in Japan and the East, as well as in the US and Britain. He is the sort of intelligent, calm and reasonable observer that we like to associate with our image of the intelligent, calm and reasonable culture of the enlightened Netherlands. Puzzled and clearly shocked by this story, by the lead-up to the murder, the murder itself, and its violent aftermath, by ‘the collapse of multiculturalism, the end of a sweet dream of tolerance and light in the most progressive little enclave of Europe’, he decided to return for a time and try to make sense of a country that appeared to have become suddenly ‘unhinged’. Murder in Amsterdam is a relatively short blend of reportage and analysis, offering a revealing and valuable portrait of the country as it now is, a portrait far removed from more traditional images. Little evidence of tolerance is reported here, and instead of tulips or windmills we get some well-judged contrasts between the hockey-playing middle-class suburbs and the more alienated and troubled ‘dish cities’, those new and sprawling neighbourhoods mostly inhabited by people of Turkish and Moroccan descent, ‘wired to the Islamic world through satellite TV’.
Buruma is not what is known locally as a bekende Nederlander – one of the celebrities who trail around from studio to studio hawking their opinions to every variety of television audience – but he is sufficiently well known and well connected to have gained access to most of the principal protagonists of the story, and to have had a chance to listen to their sometimes unguarded comments on the affair. Indeed, some weeks after the publication of the Dutch version of this book, a number of those interviewed claimed that they had been misquoted or misinterpreted. This seems unlikely. It is more plausible to suppose that, lulled by the calm and intelligence of their interlocutor, they were more frank than is usually the case when dealing with the media. The former Liberal leader and recent EU commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, for example, is quoted as saying: ‘One must never underestimate the degree of hatred that Dutch people feel for Moroccan and Turkish immigrants. My political success is based on the fact that I was prepared to listen to such people.’ Not a very sensible thing for a self-styled elder statesman to say.
Paul Scheffer, a left-wing columnist with political ambitions who became famous by taking a very public stance against multiculturalism, grew quite excited when Michael Ignatieff’s name came up in his conversation with Buruma. ‘You and I meet for the first time,’ Scheffer says, ‘yet you mention Ignatieff as though I’ve naturally heard of him. You are right, of course. I have heard of him. That’s because we share the same culture. We can assume a common understanding.’ In other words, it wouldn’t be the same with Muslims. For Buruma, the conclusion was not so obvious: ‘I didn’t say so at the time, but I couldn’t help thinking that Michael Ignatieff’s name would mean as little to most Dutch natives as to the bearded Moroccans in the nearby street market.’
I knew Theo van Gogh slightly. He and I were both more or less regular members of a small dinner club which met once a month in Amsterdam. It was a place where Theo made a lot of the running. He was very well informed about political and social life in the Netherlands, had a huge capacity for work, and in that small and quite intimate company, he was always charming and civilised, as he often wasn’t in public. He was also much valued, and the dinner club drifted apart not long after his murder.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 29 No. 2 · 25 January 2007
Peter Mair could have said more about Ian Buruma’s simplistic sense of the ‘multicultural’ crisis in Holland (LRB, 14 December 2006). Buruma is right to describe a society at loggerheads with itself and its allochtoon citizens – citizens of foreign origin – but he overstates his case when he says that the Dutch national reflex is to recall the Holocaust when the question of ethnic or religious minorities comes up. It’s true that a high percentage of Jews from the Netherlands ended up in death camps – more than from any country except Poland – while many Dutch people stood by. But Buruma goes on to say: ‘That is the horror that still hangs over Dutch life.’ Really? Buruma’s generation (also mine) had to cope with this legacy, but successive generations have grown up in an ever more secular, progressive, cosmopolitan and prosperous Holland, insulated from the memory of the Nazi transports, and feel no obligation to answer for what happened between 1940 and 1945. Buruma is plainly out of touch when he speaks of the Dutch nation feeling most sorry for itself on 4 May, Memorial Day, which nowadays has more to do with oppression wherever it may occur than with the Nazi occupation.
The strains on multiculturalism in the Netherlands are more straightforward. You may be born in Holland and you may be a Dutch citizen but neither automatically confers ‘Dutchness’. In Dutch statistics, first and second-generation immigrants qualify as allochtonen, distinct from the autochtonen, the ‘true’ Dutch, with both parents born in the Netherlands. Citizens with at least one foreign-born parent are allochtonen, classified as non-Western or Western according to the origin of the parent(s). Consequently, there are many more allochtonen than immigrants. The allochtoon concept inflates the degree of foreignness in Dutch society. Generations of Dutch nationals are stigmatised with the label allochtoon: in effect, it reads ‘not Dutch’.
Nearly one out of every five inhabitants is allochtoon, but only 6.2 per cent of the population are immigrants from non-Western countries. In Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Buruma imagines a collective foreign body in the lily-white bosom of the Dutch nation, an Allochstan as it were. ‘In 1999, 45 per cent of the population was of foreign origin,’ he writes. ‘If projections are right, this will be 52 per cent in 2015. And the majority will be Muslim.’ He fails to point out that the number of first-generation non-Western immigrants in these cities hovers around 20 per cent and is declining.
Over the last three decades, the Netherlands has changed from a nation of churchgoers into a largely secular one. A belief in the good and the green has replaced religion; the Dutch believe in generous public welfare, asylum for refugees, multiculturalism, environmental legislation, public transport, development aid, no more war. However, this alternative religion has begun to fail its followers. ‘True Dutch’ nationals and immigrants alike have fraudulently exploited welfare. The number of migrants in search of a better life has made asylum a thing of the past. The events of 9/11 and subsequent Islamist attacks in Madrid, London and Amsterdam have given leverage to those who oppose immigration. Allochtonen are discriminated against, while segregation, both residential and educational, is rampant. Toxic waste is shipped off to the Third World. Development aid has done little. No wonder modern-day believers in good and green causes are losing faith.
The South African writer Antjie Krog, who knows Holland, has written about the way Dutch discourse on integration and exclusion has come to resemble Afrikaner thinking during the apartheid years. Postwar Dutch civic values, she says, have given way to an unbending self-righteous sense of ownership, fixated on the idea that the ‘true Dutch’ have earned what they own by hard work. Some ten years ago the prime minister Ruud Lubbers spoke of ‘the calculating Dutch citizen’ who operates on a quid pro quo basis in civil and public affairs. Typical of this attitude is the notorious policy whereby refugees are denied admission to the country if they are judged lacking in the quality of integreerbaarheid – the capacity to be integrated. In recent years, the country has rejected more than 50 per cent of refugee applications on these grounds.
Even more striking than the loss of faith in the good and the green is the perceived absence of national security. The Dutch economy thrived during the postwar era under the international security umbrella of the Cold War. The Netherlands counted on the UN and the big powers, the US in particular, to keep the world at peace. The Dutch enjoyed a free ride, but things have changed. In the Netherlands, as elsewhere, it is felt that the US can no longer be relied on. Nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, rising international terrorism and the unending Palestinian drama have all been intensified by US actions, which have also weakened the UN. The Dutch media talk about a turning point in the Western alliance, but appear baffled as to what might come next.
The no-vote on the European Constitution in 2005 expressed what Tony Judt calls ‘a defensive provincialism’, a desire to protect the borders of the Dutch ‘homeland’ and retreat to a bygone past. The church is out, secularism in, but Pim Fortuyn inspired a nation of secular believers with his folkloric evocation of a pre-immigrant ‘true Dutch’ era, when Islam was still something that happened elsewhere, Dutch schools were small and their pupils white, mother was home at teatime, hospital care was personal – no paperwork involved – and the doctor still made house calls. Had he not been murdered, Fortuyn might well have won in 2002.
Enlightened, prosperous and cosmopolitan (they travel to all corners of the world, in great numbers, laden with euros), the Dutch must be aware, in the end, that this myth is of very little use to them. They are troubled by the immigrant believers in their midst, by their own loss of faith in the good and the green and by the collapse of their confidence in the US as a bulwark of European security. Buruma’s insistence that the long shadow of World War Two has defined (and complicated) Dutch tolerance obscures the fact that the Dutch have lost their bearings.
Lammert de Jong