What’s going on?

Peter Mair

  • 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.

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