The Globe and Mail, September 2006
THE FILM SUBMISSION aired in the Netherlands on August 29, 2004. It was promptly and predictably decried by Muslims as blasphemous. Fair enough; it was. If you make a film that depicts verses of the Koran printed onto the skin of half-naked women, you must expect to be called a blasphemer. Expecting to be murdered is another story. Filmmaker Theo Van Gogh expected no such thing; he continued to cycle through the streets of Amsterdam unarmed and unprotected, dismissing the threats against him as empty bluster.
On the morning of November 2, 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Dutchman of Moroccan descent, approached van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam and shot him in the stomach, blasting him off his bicycle. As van Gogh pleaded for mercy, Bouyeri continued to shoot, then slit van Gogh’s throat with a butcher knife. He skewered a letter through van Gogh’s chest all the way to his spinal column: It called for the murder of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian who had written the script forSubmission, as well as a number of other Dutch politicians and, of course, Jews. Using language drawn from the descriptions of judgment day in the Koran’s Sura al-Haj, the letter predicted the imminent destruction of Western civilization.
Bouyeri was not a foreigner—not, at least, in any legal sense. He had been born and raised in Amsterdam. Like the bombers who in July 2005 murdered 52 riders of the London Tube, he was a native European, and it was this realization, above all, that sent a collective shudder down the Continental spine. What had gone so badly wrong in the tolerant Netherlands that a young man who had received all the handsome benefits of the Dutch welfare state would in broad daylight commit such an act? He was neither objectively poor, nor uneducated, nor oppressed—nor insane, according to the psychiatrists who examined him. He had acted, he said at his trial, “out of conviction.”
In the winter following the murder, the Anglo-Dutch journalist Ian Buruma, best known for writing—extremely well—about the culture and politics of Asia, returned to the Netherlands so better to understand both the sources of this outrage and its aftermath. The result of his investigation is Murder in Amsterdam, a riveting exploration of an event (one, unfortunately, among many) that has come to symbolize the problem of murderous Islamic radicalism in Europe.
Buruma had been a vague acquaintance of van Gogh’s, and his portrait of the filmmaker manages to convey the man’s provocative unpleasantness—”the huge pink belly straining under old T-shirts, the nicotine-stained teeth, the nose-picking, the scratching, the general disdain for personal hygiene”—without once hinting that he had it coming, as those who focus on van Gogh’s abrasive personality are often inclined to do. (By contrast, among the well-known apologists the murderer was Rohan Jayasekera, ironically enough the associate editor of the Index on Censorship, who immediately after the crime was moved to denounce van Gogh more stringently than the murderer. Van Gogh, he said, had invited his own martyrdom through the “abuse of his right to free speech.” The widespread focus on van Gogh’s Bad Speech and Bad Thought, which began almost before his body was cold, was nearly as chilling as the murder itself, suggesting as it did the degree to which the principle of freedom of speech in Europe had already been renounced.)
Buruma is not among the apologists; he approaches the subject with perfect moral clarity. Yet he does so without sketching moral caricatures—a tough and admirable act. He brings Bouyeri, Hirsi Ali, and other actors in the story to three-dimensional life, presenting them as complicated, ambiguous personalities while at the same time skillfully locating their personality types in the larger context of Dutch history, mores and manners. In a lesser writer, so keen a sympathy with the longings and frustrations of Europe’s Islamic radicals—and so critical an examination of the character deficiencies of their enemies, such as the heroic but tactless and contumacious Hirsi Ali—would risk coming across as ethical equivocation masquerading as subtlety and nuance. In Buruma’s hands, it is that rarest of authorial virtues,genuine subtlety and nuance. His treatment of Islamism is all the more damning for being less shrill; Bouyeri is given the fairest imaginable shake—and he is still a monster.
Buruma evokes, in vivid physical description and dialogue, the lives of the Dutch privileged class from which van Gogh emerged—”large houses in an expensive part of the Hague, the kind of verdant suburb where the main sounds of summer are the plock of tennis balls, the tinkling of tea cups, and the quiet hiss of lawn sprinklers.” Equally vivid are his descriptions of the “dish cities,” so named for the satellite dishes poking from the roofs and linking their inhabitants to their native countries, filled with “Moroccan bakeries, Turkish kebab joints, travel agents offering cheap flights to Istanbul or Casablanca, and coffee houses, filled with sad-eyed men in jellabas, whose health had often been wrecked by years of dirty and dangerous labor.” If Buruma is successful in conveying the texture of Dutch daily life, it is because he is himself a Dutch native, born in the Netherlands in 1951. But if he is also unusually insightful about the emotions of Dutch-born men who feel themselves to be outsiders in the Netherlands, it is because is one of them as well. His mother was English, and English, literally, his mother tongue; he has spent a third of his life in Asia.
In God’s Dust, published in 1989, Buruma described his interest in the vexed subject of national identities as “autobiographical.” He was, he wrote, fascinated by the subject of other people’s loyalties: “I have always wanted to know what it feels like to be entirely and unselfconsciously at home in one country.” Given that this has been the central preoccupation of Buruma’s life, it is not surprising that he concludes it was also the central preoccupation of Bouyeri’s. The Bouyeri he describes felt at home nowhere. This, to Buruma’s mind, was the ultimate source of his radicalism, and by extension the radicalism of other Muslims in Europe who saw in Bouyeri not a psychopath but a hero. Their numbers are not trivial: Of course we do not know exactly how many they are, and of course it is not all Muslims, but it is enough that Hirsi Ali, as well as several other Dutch politicians, must regularly move under cover of darkness from safe house to safe house. They venture out nowhere in the Netherlands without bodyguards.
Buruma observes, importantly, that it is not Muslim immigrants who pose a threat to Europe’s Enlightenment consensus, but their sons. The wave of Muslim immigration to Europe began in the 1960s, when economic migrants—villagers, generally, and the poorest citizens of their native countries—were encouraged to fill Europe’s postwar factory labor shortages. “[C]ooped up in cheap hostels, prepared to do almost anything to provide for their families back home,” these single men arrived in Europe unskilled, uneducated, and politically unsophisticated; they could scarcely have been more poorly prepared for economic advancement and civic integration in massive, modern, secular cities. Bouyeri’s father was a guest worker from Morocco. Buruma’s observations about immigrants to the Netherlands apply equally to almost every European country: In Germany, immigrants came from the least-developed areas of rural Turkey; in France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, they came from the most backwards areas of North Africa. Predictably, these men and the wives who ultimately joined them failed to thrive.
No one expected them to stay in Europe; few people gave much thought to the question of what would happen if they did. When indeed they did stay, official policy toward them was informed, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, by collective guilt. The shadow of the Holocaust loomed large; it was a taboo even to ask whether there were certain minorities that Europe did not need, or religious practices that were inherently despicable. Buruma, rightly, traces the origins of Dutch multiculturalism and the Dutch policy of endless, indulgent and infantilizing welfare subsidies for immigrants—unbalanced by reciprocal demands that recipients conform to Dutch social norms—to the Nazi death camps. Some 71 percent of Dutch Jews perished in the Holocaust, the highest percentage in Western Europe outside Poland, and the memory of this, writes Buruma, “is the horror that still hangs over Dutch life like a toxic cloud.” Not just Dutch life, I would note: If it seems incomprehensible that nearly all the European nations have permitted radical imams to operate with impunity on their soil; that they have used taxpayer money to fund extremist mosques and social clubs that preach violent jihad, hatred of the West, misogyny and anti-Semitism; that they have turned a blind eye toward forced marriages, honor killings, and the subjugation and battery of women, then this must be seen as a form of perverse atonement for the persecution of the Jews, more than half a century ago. There is no practical logic to it, only an emotional one, and the irony is so obvious it need not be spelled out.
Slowly, throughout the 1960s, neighborhoods of immigrants expanded throughout Europe. Then came the 1973 oil price shocks. Modernizing economies shifted their focus from labor-intensive industries to those requiring specialized skills and education. Overburdened European welfare economies began to falter. Unemployment, petty crime and violence rose in the dish cities, as did widespread popular hostility toward immigrants. If the immigrants themselves had neither the language skills to protest their marginalized status nor the confidence to resent it, their children did. If they had, by contrast, the comfort of a clear sense of ethnic identity and an intimate connection to their homelands, their children did not.
Examining Bouyeri’s life and social milieu, Buruma finds him virtually the embodiment of the archetype described by the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger as “the radical loser”—young, talentless, self-pitying; a man whose loathing of himself could be converted with only scant coaxing into a violent loathing of others. (This character was also foreshadowed, of course, over and over again, in Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.) Bouyeri was pudgy. He was no good at sports. Dutch women snubbed him. His parents, bewildered immigrants from a remote village in the Moroccan Rif mountains, appeared to him whipped, subservient, humiliated. When introduced by a friend to a Syrian radical who was living illegally in the Netherlands and preaching a particularly exigent and intolerant form of Islam called Takfir, Bouyeri was quickly besotted. Unlike his emasculated father, the Syrian seemed to him pure, strong. “Unsure of where he belonged,” writes Buruma, “[Bouyeri] lost himself in a murderous cause.” It is interesting to note how well Buruma’s portrait of Bouyeri confirms now-forgotten studies of juvenile delinquency conducted by American sociologists in the 1950s, ones that concluded that just two variables—low socio-economic status and a weak father image—were remarkably good predictors of future delinquency.
Buruma is writing about Amsterdam, but might as well be writing about London, Paris, Berlin or Madrid. The number of Muslims in Europe has doubled in the past decade, but throughout Europe, they remain, compared to other Europeans, uneducated and poor. (They are wealthy and learned, it should be noted, by comparison with Muslims in their countries of origin, but Loserdom is always a matter of local contrasts.) Crime rates in Muslim neighborhoods are high. Unemployment among Muslims vastly exceeds national averages. Large cohorts of these frustrated, unemployed young men are living on the dole and finding solace in the promises of radical Islam. One aspect of its message, in particular, is compelling: You—yes, you, jobless, inarticulate and disdained by women though you may be!—are not a loser, but rather a member of the elect. It is the seemingly self-assured, prosperous Europeans around you, those inaccessible, snooty European women in particular, who are the damned; and if find yourself living in a slum, poor and frustrated, the object of disdainful glances and remarks, it is because you are living in a society of filthy infidels.
Buruma’s evocation of Bouyeri as Loser is an important part of the story, persuasively told. To my mind it is incomplete. Ultimately, Buruma argues, it is misleading to see Islam as the as enemy of the Enlightenment. “The modern terrorist has latched on to a religious faith but might just as well have chosen a radically secular creed,” he argues, and of course it is true that murderous radicalism has often attached itself to secular ideologies, as it is also true that all Muslims are not radicals. But it is unpersuasive to diminish, as Buruma does, the fact that this particular murderous radicalismhas attached itself to a religious ideology—and that this poses a unique set of problems. It is particularly hard to dissuade a man from murder if he is persuaded his reward is to be found in the afterworld, and while certainly some fanatics are both secular and suicidal—Tamil Tigers and Japanese kamikazes come to Buruma’s mind and mine—neither the Tigers nor the Tojoists represented an ideology with a global appeal and global reach. Note that the Dutch don’t have a Tamil Tiger problem on their hands. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has a growing problem with Islamic radicalism.
Buruma is right to note that Muslims in Europe, lacking a sense of national identity, are particularly vulnerable to radical ideologies, but so, it seems, are Muslims with a robust sense of belonging and national identity; it is hardly possible to imagine that violent Islamists in Indonesia, Jordan, Iran or Afghanistan are plagued and radicalized by a sense of homelessness. To place the emphasis on radicalism, rather than Islamic radicalism, is a hopeful interpretation. If the problem, as Buruma argues, is that these young men feel that “death is their only way home,” the solution, while not simple, is at least imaginable: Europeans must make them feel at home.
And yes, surely they must try, although they are not doing so with any seriousness right now. Throughout Europe, policies are in place that seem guaranteed to encourage Muslim separatism: utter denial about the extent and seriousness of the problem, welfarism, economic policies that lead to stagnation and severely limit upward social mobility, the promotion of a form of patronizing, nihilistic multiculturalism that ensures eternal ghettoization, all of this exacerbated by a general attitude of contempt for religion in any form and a distaste for Muslims in particular.
But I suspect, pessimistically, that even if the nations of Europe were to adopt shrewd, far-sighted economic and social policies, Islamic radicalism would flourish there all the same. After all, economic liberalization in Britain has not curbed the problem; the London Tube bombers were its quite comfortably affluent beneficiaries. In France, there is no official doctrine of multiculturalism—quite the opposite—yet France faces exactly the same problem as every other European state. Islamic extremism is an astonishingly vexed problem, if only for the fact that no one really knows what causes it, and no one has yet had any luck in making it go away.
Murder in Amsterdam is an exceptionally articulate discussion of this question; it is a beautifully written portrait not just of a man but of a whole country that has no idea where it belongs. But by the end of the book it seems clear that however lucidly he describes the problem, Buruma, like the rest of us, can think of no good solutions. This is not a weakness of the book; rather it is to his credit, for it is proof of his intellectual honesty. There simply are no solutions—no moral or humane ones, anyway—and deep down, everyone now living in Europe knows it.