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.

The murder itself was particularly nasty, and Buruma, who also knew him slightly, describes it in some detail. Theo was cycling to his office along his usual route and was shot in the stomach by a young Dutch-Moroccan called Mohammed Bouyeri, now better known in the Netherlands as Mohammed B., since the newspapers reporting the murder and subsequent court case followed their usual practice of not giving the full surname of the suspect. That first shot was not immediately fatal, and Van Gogh managed to crawl or stagger to the other side of the street. There, Bouyeri shot him again several times, then slashed his throat with a large curved knife, almost decapitating him. Using a smaller knife, he stabbed a letter onto Van Gogh’s chest – various commentators, including Buruma, speak of Bouyeri ‘pinning’ a note onto the body, as if the knife were a drawing pin and Van Gogh a noticeboard – in which he threatened to mete out a similar punishment to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a young member of the Dutch parliament who had come to the Netherlands as a refugee from Somalia, and with whom Theo had recently collaborated on a short film called Submission.

I also knew Hirsi Ali slightly – the Netherlands is in many ways like a village – from the time when she had taken one of my classes in comparative politics. That was soon after she acquired a Dutch passport, and her spoken and written Dutch was then quite weak. Within a decade she had transformed herself from a gauche and rather shy asylum seeker into a strong and highly articulate member of parliament for the right-wing Liberal Party. She had first worked as a researcher and policy analyst for the Labour Party, but quickly achieved notoriety by becoming a prominent critic of Islamic fundamentalism and a passionate advocate of what she believed to be the values of the Enlightenment. Submission, which Hirsi Ali scripted and Van Gogh directed, dealt with the domestic violence experienced by Muslim women, a topic normally hidden from view: it aroused controversy above all by having verses from the Koran projected onto the semi-naked bodies of abused women.

On the morning Van Gogh was killed, he was working on a new film about the assassination of the populist politician, Pim Fortuyn. He was a prolific film-maker, working for both television and cinema, and had lately been engaged on a drama series centred on politics and social conflict in the Netherlands. One of the most successful was about a tragic love affair between a Moroccan from one of the dish cities and a rich white girl from the hockey suburbs. Buruma writes about it at length, making it plain that Van Gogh wasn’t a racist and that his sympathies lay with the two young lovers. For Van Gogh, the enemy was the establishment, not the other race or creed.

Fortuyn, his last subject, had been the leader and virtual personification of a new right-wing populist party, the LPF (List Pim Fortuyn), formed in the lead-up to the elections of May 2002, which went on to win 17 per cent of the vote and 26 seats in parliament – the most successful debut of any new party in postwar Dutch history. Fortuyn himself had been murdered by an animal rights activist a week before polling, and since little was known about the other candidates standing on the party list, those who voted for the LPF probably did so in the dark. The problem was compounded by the moratorium on campaigning that had been declared during the days of public mourning which followed the assassination. The election could have been postponed, of course, allowing the various political forces to regroup and come to terms with the new post-Fortuyn situation, but this was not the option favoured by the established parties. Fortuyn had been everything for the new party, and without him it eventually fell apart.

Fortuyn had begun as a promising but in the end unsuccessful academic sociologist, who had started off on the left and then gradually moved ever further to the right. He had long wanted to enter the more or less closed circles of the Dutch political class – the regenten – but had been turned away by one establishment party after another. He was quite unpredictable: very smart, a very good speaker and debater, and stylishly and quite flamboyantly gay. He lived in Rotterdam, in the so-called Palazzo di Pietro (it is now possible to enjoy a virtual tour of the house at www.palazzodipietro.nl), and campaigned for election in 2002 in his chauffeur-driven Daimler, always accompanied by two King Charles spaniels. Van Gogh admired him – they admired each other for their shared outrageousness – and according to Buruma he scripted some of Fortuyn’s best lines. Buruma’s account of Fortuyn is one of the best available in English, but it is also sometimes misjudged. He speaks of Fortuyn being perceived as a ‘political messiah’ and ‘angelic saviour’, and links his shortlived role in Dutch politics to the role played by transsexuals and transvestites in sacred ceremonies in Asia – persons who, presumably like Fortuyn, ‘inspire a kind of mystical awe. For like angels, they are above the mundane lives of ordinary men and women.’

Fortuyn’s case was more banal than this. He may not have been the precise equivalent of Haider in Austria, Blocher in Switzerland, or even Berlusconi in Italy – perhaps the most apt comparison, and the one preferred by Fortuyn – but he wasn’t that different either and, like the other three, probably owed more to the deeply ensconced position enjoyed by the cartel of established parties than to his own gifts. A populist challenge was long overdue in the Netherlands, as a number of political scientists pointed out well before Fortuyn took up his cudgel, and it still hasn’t run out of steam. In the most recent elections, last month, there was a massive shift away from the mainstream centre parties, benefiting a left-wing populist party at one end of the spectrum, and a new anti-immigrant party at the other. The Dutch centre, it seems, can no longer hold. Fortuyn was also hopelessly arrogant, as populists often are: he was particularly dismissive of the professional politicians he debated with and often humiliated in the television studios, as well as being highly critical of Islam, which he famously described as ‘a backward religion’. (For Van Gogh, Muslims were geiteneukers – literally ‘goat-fuckers’, i.e. ‘sheep-shaggers’; for Jews and Christians he had other expressions.)

At some level Fortuyn’s politics were probably opportunistic: the politics of the anti-party party; but his frustration with the established political class and his anger at the attacks on homosexuality and homosexuals that were being voiced by various Dutch imams were deeply felt. When asked by a reporter why he felt so strongly about Islam, as Buruma records, he replied, probably sincerely: ‘I have no desire to have to go through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again.’ The Netherlands has always prided itself on its tolerance of minority behaviour, and for all his right-wing rhetoric Fortuyn could quite plausibly present himself as a defender of liberal values – an increasingly common combination in the emerging religious conflicts of 21st-century Europe. Right-wing populist politicians emphasise the need to defend a range of individual rights that have long been espoused by the left, whereas the left now often seeks to downplay these rights in its defence of multiculturalism, particularly when, as in the Netherlands, feminists and homosexuals are being denounced from the minaret. Shortly after Van Gogh’s murder, as Buruma relates, the right-wing and sometimes incompetent minister for integration and immigration, Rita Verdonk, met a group of imams, including one elderly Syrian-born imam who refused to shake her hand on the grounds that his religion forbade physical contact with strange women. Strange men would have been no problem. That this was a highly publicised moment can be explained by the emphasis on gender equality in Dutch public life.

One further complicating strand of the plot, which Buruma hasn’t discussed, is the Mabel Wisse Smit story. Wisse Smit had been targeted in a number of Van Gogh’s columns in 2003 and 2004 because of her relationship with Prince Johan-Friso, the queen’s second son. Wisse Smit was bright, ambitious and attractive, while Johan-Friso was at best dull and worthy, but she also had what is known as a colourful past. She had once had an intimate relationship with a married Bosnian official who was later imprisoned for fraud, and at some point had been closely associated with the notorious Dutch criminal Klaas Bruinsma, known as De Dominee, who was gunned down outside the Amsterdam Hilton in 1991. Wisse Smit used to spend nights with Bruinsma on his yacht, although she denied – implausibly – that they’d had a sexual relationship. For Van Gogh, who held the royal house in contempt, the idea of an ex-gangster’s moll succeeding to the throne was too good a story to pass over, and shortly before his death he was preparing a satirical book on Wisse Smit, to be written together with Tomas Ross, a Dutch thriller writer. In the end, the project seems to have fizzled out. Wisse Smit and Johan-Friso married in 2004, but without the official approval of parliament, as a result of which Johan-Friso was obliged to give up his right to the throne. The couple now live in London.

Of the now famous quartet who turned Dutch politics on its head in 2002-04 – Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali, Fortuyn and Verdonk – only Verdonk, a former prison director, remains. Indeed, she goes from strength to strength. Van Gogh and Fortuyn were both murdered, and Hirsi Ali was effectively driven into exile – by Verdonk. Buruma manages to catch this coda to the story in a brief postscript, but his book seems to have gone to press before everything was finally resolved. Last April, Hirsi Ali suffered two crucial blows within a few days of each other. She had already faced numerous death threats, and been forced to live with round-the-clock protection. Eventually, she was allowed to move out of the military barracks where she had been sheltering and was given a comfortable flat in a reasonably expensive apartment block. There, the round-the-clock protection continued, much to the chagrin of her new neighbours, who went to court to seek her eviction, concerned that her presence and her security reduced property values. The judge agreed, and Hirsi Ali was suddenly homeless.

Around the same time, a documentary on Dutch television reported that she had used a false name when she applied for asylum, and had gone on to acquire a Dutch passport under that name. Verdonk watched the programme on a Thursday evening, set her civil servants to work to check the story, and announced on the following Monday that she planned to withdraw Hirsi Ali’s passport, thereby rendering her not only stateless, but also bringing her parliamentary career to an abrupt end: only Dutch citizens may sit in parliament. An emergency debate was held later that week – a large proportion of the population followed the proceedings through to their 6 a.m. conclusion live on television. The occasion showed Dutch politics at their worst as well as their best. It revealed an incompetent minister who had badly misjudged her brief and seemed desperate to score cheap political points; but it also revealed an angry, articulate and often highly impressive group of cross-party MPs who sought to defend the rights of one of their colleagues. They succeeded. Verdonk’s judgment and the procedures adopted by her department were shown to be flawed and Hirsi Ali eventually got her passport back. Like many asylum seekers she had falsified her name in order to escape an arranged marriage and evade the wrath of her family, and had made no secret of this in the intervening years. She had already admitted it to her colleagues in the Liberal Party, which was also Verdonk’s party; and she admitted it to Buruma, who writes at length about her troubled past. She never returned to parliament, however, preferring to emigrate to the US, where she now works at the American Enterprise Institute. Buruma concludes his postscript and his book by observing that the Netherlands ‘seems smaller without her’.

The conflict that has threatened to overwhelm the Netherlands in the last few years is less a clash of civilisations than a clash of neighbourhoods. Multiculturalism was suited to the Netherlands, where each of the so-called ‘pillarised’ communities in the domestic population – Protestants, Catholics, Socialists and Liberals – had already been allowed to go its own way, each with its own separate parties, interest groups, schools, broadcasting networks and so on, and meeting together, if at all, only in the conclaves of the regenten and in the consensual multi-party coalitions that have always dominated Dutch politics. Foreigners in general, and the growing Muslim community in particular, became like another pillar in this complex system, culturally self-sufficient, often ignored by outsiders, and integrating only minimally. Relatively few learned Dutch. (Most foreigners don’t, of course, not least because so many Dutch speak English, which has increasingly become the lingua franca between the different communities.) Not that foreigners were formerly encouraged to do so. This has now changed, however, even to the extent that Minister Verdonk recently threatened to fine citizens who don’t converse in Dutch. Before this change of heart, it sometimes seemed as if the Dutch were keen to close off their language as a means of closing off and protecting their own native community. One would often be told with pride of the peculiarities and the impenetrability of the Dutch – ‘don’t even try to understand us,’ people often said to me. Nowadays, by contrast, and this is also part of Van Gogh’s legacy, the push is for understanding, integration and, especially, assimilation. Verdonk has also threatened to ban the burka.

There are upwards of two million non-Western immigrants in the Netherlands, more than 10 per cent of the population, and many of them struggle to come to terms with their host country. The children in this growing community will soon constitute a majority of schoolchildren in the four major cities – Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht – and, following the example set by many of their American cousins, the white middle class often take flight from their old city centres. Relations between the native and immigrant communities have never been very good, but they have now sunk to a new and sometimes quite dangerous low. Indeed, the native Dutch have never been as understanding of different races as they have of different behaviours. In the wake of Van Gogh’s murder, a handful of mosques were attacked and vandalised by one side, a handful of Christian churches by the other. Muslim schools were attacked. To me, it seemed as if some of the worst features of the Northern Irish conflict had come to the Netherlands. Here too, in this small, low-lying and densely populated country, there was what Yeats saw as ‘great hatred, little room’.

But although this is clearly a Dutch story – there was some perverse pride among my Dutch colleagues at the number of foreign media teams that descended on the Netherlands to document the apparent collapse of the Dutch model (fame at last) – it is unlikely to remain a Dutch story exclusively. The Dutch may have encountered these problems at an extreme, this being the legacy of a strong tradition of tolerance within what is no longer a closed and homogeneous culture, but the tensions that have been aroused will extend far beyond the polder. Buruma analyses these very well, combining the understanding of the native with the wider perspective of the cosmopolitan. It may be that he has seen Europe’s future, or one of Europe’s possible futures, but despite his occasional protestations, it doesn’t seem to work.