Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Murder in Amsterdam

Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance is the exploration by Dutch-born American writer and commentator Ian Buruma of the murder of Theo van Gogh – and the earlier murder of Pim Fortuyn – in the Netherlands.

It is a deeply informed, subtle and informative book. Buruma has a sharp eye for motivation and resentments. He has some particularly perceptive comments about the dynamics of Our Kind of People politics and the problems of welfare – the atomisation, the sense of entitlement, the disconnect from effort. Buruma notes that the harsher US system is rather better at integrating migrants than the European welfare states. No one knowledgeable about the social collapse in indigenous communities in Oz will be surprised by what Buruma writes here. (His comments about Our Kind of People politics and the problems of welfare are more surprising coming from a noted US liberal commentator, but Buruma has established a reputation for independent thought.)

Buruma describes a Dutch society that is adrift. The social revolution of the 1960s unsettled the staid Netherlands of the “pillars” (Protestant, Catholic, socialist). The new, secular, socially progressive Netherlands has also become multicultural Netherlands, with a rash of new (largely Muslim) immigrants poorly integrated into a Dutch society not very clear about what such integration would consist of: still less how it is to be done. The cavalier, bureaucratised compassion of the welfare state manages feebly. For example, it was frequently the habit of migrant parents to send delinquent sons back to their ancestral villages to be socialised into civil behaviour. Social workers apparently put a stop to that on the grounds it was “oppressive”. Their idea of such socialisation is apparently state-subsidised youth clubs subject to the normal erraticisms of bureaucratic delivery. (Now, apparently, migrant parents have absorbed the lesson of all entitlements and no responsibility.)
One such case of failed integration being Mohammad Bouyeri, who one day cycled to the centre of Amsterdam and murdered Theo van Gogh. Buruma stresses in many ways how Dutch Mohammad B. was: how alike in their narcissistic idealism, their status as "radical losers" both he and Volkert van der Graaf, the vegan animal rights activist who murdered Pim Fortuyn, were. Though Buruma spends far more space on Mohammad B. than van der Graaf.

Buruma examines in the detail the lives and public celebrity of the two murdered men, Fortuyn and van Gogh. They were both outrageously flamboyant, with a penchant for being publicly shocking. Buruma sees the Netherlands as a society that has lost any sense of civility in public life, full of over-the-top rhetoric. Yet also suffering a very complacent and increasingly out-of-touch political class – hence Fortuyn’s astonishing political success.

While the book is full of people, the two other personalities who are most closely examined are Mohammad B. himself and Ayaan Hirshi Ali. The radical loser who turned to a “pure” (that is, separated from community and traditional scholarship) Islam and the high profile, flagrantly successful migrant who is a harsh critic of Islam and a fervent public supporter of Enlightenment values.

Buruma’s treatment of all four is deeply ambivalent, concerned to see the positive and the negative in each. In the case of Ayaan Hirshi Ali, however, it seems to be an evolving ambivalence, an increasingly positive treatment as the book goes on. Indeed, the last lines of the text, in the Postscript about the revocation of her Dutch citizenship and emigration to the United States, are
And Ayaan Hirshi Ali has had to leave the scene. My country seems smaller without her.
But ambivalence pervades the book. Indeed, unresolved ambivalence seems to be Buruma’s take on just about every aspect of Dutch society. Particularly the ambivalence inherent in what is remembered and what is not about the World War Two experience and the disaster visited on Dutch Jews. Amsterdam may have been the only occupied city to go on strike in protest about the deportation of Jews: it is also true that Dutch Jews had one of the lowest survival rates and that postwar Netherlands made a great deal about Dutch suffering under Nazi occupation, but largely ignored the Jewish tragedy until the 1960s.

While much of Murder in Amsterdam is perceptive and admirable, there are two vacancies in the book. One is a sense of Dutch liberal-democracy being worth defending in its own right. It is one thing to note uncertainties of identity, unresolved ambivalences, failures of policy and performance. But Buruma spends so much time on the flaws of various defenders, and of Dutch society, the sense of having positive to defend seeps away also. One exception is his respectful treatment of Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim-Dutch politician undertaking the lonely, frustrating, task of attempting to bridge the various communities.

The other vacancy is why alienated Muslims resort to political murder to an extent that alienated other migrants simply don’t. Amsterdam Councillor Aboutaleb, for example, has to travel everywhere with bodyguards. And he is hardly the only figure we meet in the book who needs such protection.

Buruma is keen to stress the common difficulties of migrant experience. And they are certainly a big part of the story. But the West has been taking in migrants for many years. No other migrant community generates the need for public figures to have bodyguards or live in hiding or publish under nom de plum’s. In John Howard’s blunt but true words (pdf):
You can’t find any equivalent in Italian or Greek or Lebanese or Chinese or Baltic immigration to Australia. There is no equivalent of raving on about jihad.
It is all very well, and perfectly true, to say that Islam is a varied religion, that Muslims are hugely varied. It is all very well, and perfectly true, to examine the failures of the Dutch state and society with regard to migrants. And yet, and yet, and yet. There is this specifically Muslim difficulty. Buruma touches on it, but he skirts, rather than fully examines. After all, he spends far more time on Mohammad B. rather than van der Graaf simply because Mohammad B. represents a much larger phenomenon. Van der Graaf may well represent political correctness gone absolutely toxic, but he is very much an isolated case. Mohammad B. is emblematic precisely because he isn’t an isolated case. It is all very well for Buruma to talk about the Dutchness of his life: but there is nothing specifically Dutch about the larger phenomena he represents.

Buruma also doesn’t tell us what role the media and intellectual life played in the complacency and remoteness of the political class. In particular, he does not consider whether fashionable multiculturalism – the demand that the locals adapt to the newcomers – may have created or exacerbated problems by not being anywhere near as concerned with how the newcomers adapt to the locals. Leaving a gap in both policy and public discourse to be filled by other ideas and actions.

Even with these cavils, Buruma has still written a very fine, very informative, subtle and illuminating book.

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