Ambivalent in Amsterdam

November 10, 2006 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: IslamismToryIslam

Ambivalent in Amsterdam

Mini Teaser: In Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma equivocates when clarity would have enlightened readers.

by Author(s): Paul Hollander

Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 288 pp., $24.95.

There have been three major ideological-political movements in the 20th and early 21st centuries which most explicitly and purposefully exploited and harnessed the capacity for hatred to the pursuit of political objectives: Nazism, Communism and now radical Islam.

Supporters and leaders of all three movements believed that they could create blissful social systems if only they could eradicate the groups and individuals malevolently obstructing the accomplishment of the great goals. The thirst for destroying these enemies was dependably fueled by a consuming hatred. All three currents were arrayed against the West, that is to say, secular, liberal, democratic and pluralistic societies.

But Nazism and Communism were largely secular, or secular-religious-their adherents did not seek fulfillment and glory in the combination of self-destruction with the destruction of their enemies in the expectation of otherworldly rewards. These three belief systems also differed in the degree of irrationality their leaders and supporters displayed, reflecting the varying degrees of religious, or quasi-religious fervor motivating them. "Irrationality" here (as in general) refers to implausible, empirically unfounded beliefs and expectations-for example, those of the suicide bombers who are convinced that their murderous deeds will secure them admission to paradise.

Islamic radicals are also distinguished from Nazis and Communists by the prominence and intensity of their hatred, freely and joyously expressed, and the ready embrace of self-destruction rooted in the beliefs in otherworldly rewards. A major question of the present-day political agenda of the whole world, and especially Western nations, is how serious of a threat such fanaticism represents and how to cope with it.

In light of these questions and concerns, Ian Buruma's new book is of great interest. Buruma had earlier addressed (with Avishai Margalit) in Occidentalism the more elusive connections between the present-day Islamic hatred of the West and the rejections of Western values and institutions. In this volume the point of departure is the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, an outspoken Dutch critic of Islamic beliefs and attitudes. Why did a young man, who was neither poor nor oppressed, who had received a decent education, who had never had trouble making friends, who enjoyed smoking dope and drinking beer, why would such a man turn into a holy warrior whose only wish was to kill and, perhaps more mysteriously, to die?

There is no clear answer forthcoming, but there are numerous plausible, if somewhat contradictory, suggestions.

Murder in Amsterdam is the product of a journalistic fact-finding mission consisting of sketches of the major protagonists in the recent violent dramas and interviews with people expressing very different points of views. The chapters are somewhat disjointed, as if hastily put together-albeit by a very knowledgeable native of Holland who had access to the major players and had given much thought to these matters.

Buruma is judicious and discerning, but his efforts to avoid simplification often interfere with determining what his own views are. Sometimes it takes an effort to establish whether or not the views described are his or those of his interlocutors. And when presenting the latter it is often unclear whether he agrees or disagrees with them. He writes about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the famous female critic of Islam of Somali origin and former member of the Dutch Parliament, who was forced to live underground because of death threats and who is currently in exile in the United States: "To some  she is a heroine, standing up against the forces of darkness, battling for free speech and enlightened values . . . Others . . . loathe her." Does the "some" include or exclude the writer? Does he question that she stood up against the forces of darkness defending free speech at great risk to her life? Is she mistaken in her belief that many problems "that plague the Islamic world . . . can be explained at least in part . . . [by] . . . a warped view of sexuality" that is to say, the attitude towards women? Is she overly zealous "in her battle for secularism" as he suggests? And is not such zealousness commendable when it combines, as it had, with great courage and integrity? Is she wrong suggesting that the liberation of Muslims in the West "is sabotaged by the Western cultural relativists . . . who say, ‘It's part of their culture, so you mustn't take it away. . . .'" Here Buruma gently guides the reader to the conclusion that these are extreme, unwise positions. He also writes: She "was no Voltaire. For Voltaire had flung his insults at the Catholic Church, one of the two most powerful institutions of 18th century France, while Ayaan risked offending only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe." A peculiar judgment, since Voltaire was hardly in imminent danger of assassination and forced to live in hiding, whereas she was hounded by an exceptionally brutal, violent and hate-filled "minority"-as if that minority status trivialized the risks she had taken or neutralized the fanaticism of her enemies. In the postscript, Buruma shows more sympathy, apparently more on account of the tragic circumstances of her life than her beliefs. His "country seems smaller without her", he concludes.

Another example of authorial ambivalence is the discussion of the views of Afshin Ellian, a scholar born in Tehran who writes newspaper columns in Holland "harshly critical of political Islam." Ellian believes, in Buruma's telling,

"[T]hat citizenship of a democratic society means living by the laws of the country. A liberal democracy cannot survive when part of the population believes that divine laws trump those made by man. The fruits of European Enlightenment must be defended . . . European intellectuals, in their self-hating nihilism and utopian anti-Americanism, have lost the stomach to fight for Enlightenment values . . . No religion or minority should be immune to censure or ridicule."

Buruma does not say what he thinks about these sensible and defensible propositions but observes later that "the tone of his [Ellian's] columns is sometimes strident, even shrill." He also appears to distance himself from the opinion of former leftist Paul Scheffer, who thinks that "allowing large communities of alienated Muslims to grow in our midst was a recipe for social and political disaster."

At one point Buruma argues that democracy would only be threatened "if all true Muslims were political revolutionaries." It is hard to see why a smaller, determined group of violent revolutionaries (who enjoy the passive support of more substantial, if undetermined portions of their community) should be dismissed as non-threatening.

It is a telling illustration of the attitudes found in the Islamic communities in Holland that van Gogh's killer and his friends demanded that they be provided with apartments by the municipal authorities built in such a way that the "women should be able to go in and out of the kitchen unseen." In a declining working class neighborhood Buruma quotes an old woman, one of the few Dutch people who chose to stay:

"The trouble really began when masses of Moroccan and Turkish families were dumped in our neighborhood. They had no idea how to behave in our society. Garbage bags would be tossed into the street from the second floor. Goats would be slaughtered on the balcony. The worst . . . [is] that we don't speak the same language. You know, when your ceiling leaks and you can't tell the neighbors upstairs to turn off their tap."

Again it's not clear if Buruma thinks these are vicious ethnocentric stereotypes or a reasonable enough complaint.

This is to not say that the author never makes his views clear. Towards the end of the book he demolishes a conventional wisdom, writing: "It is unlikely . . . that those who want God's kingdom on earth are going to be satisfied with a better deal for the Palestinians or a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq." Thus on the one hand he recognizes that "violence in the name of faith" is hard to tame or eradicate, but on the other seems to blame Dutch society for the alienation in the Islamic community, sometimes the Western world as a whole: "Perhaps Western civilization, with the Amsterdam red-light district as its fetid symbol, does have something to answer for."

As to the responsibility of Dutch society, it is not clear if it is the "smugness" and racism that is blamed, or its opposite: the politically correct eagerness to cater to the immigrants' customs and sense of identity and the attendant abandonment of any serious attempt to integrate them.

Thus Buruma oscillates between explaining the instances of violence (and the attitudes giving rise to them) by the character of Dutch society, Islamic beliefs and broader historical trends and phenomena. He writes (discussing the mind-set of van Gogh's killer) that "the death wish in the name of a high cause, a god, or a great leader is something that has appealed to confused and resentful young men through the ages and is certainly not unique to Islam." But the current confluence of violence against the "infidels" with self-destruction has few equals outside the ranks of those imbued with Islamic beliefs. Neither Nazism nor Marxism generated suicidal violence; likewise, the radical leftist terrorist groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the United States and Europe displayed no suicidal impulses presumably because they had no religiously inspired conviction that a blissful afterlife awaited them as a reward for their murderous good works.

Essay Types: Book Review