Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerence
London: Penguin, 2007
In 2002 and 2004, the Netherlands were rocked by two political murders: first of Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn then of film-maker, columnist, talk show host, and intellectual gadfly Theo van Gogh. Until now, non-Dutch speakers were at a loss to grasp the complexity of these events and to gauge the political and social undercurrents involved. Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance is the first book in English about the slayings and is an indispensable tool in grappling with these crimes, which struck the Netherlands, and Europe as a whole, at its very ideological and cultural heart.
Fortuyn and van Gogh had been murdered because of their anti-immigration views. Fortuyn, a maverick politician riding an anti-immigration juggernaut, was struck down by a white “anti-fascist” at the height of the 2002 electoral season. Van Gogh, Fortuyn’s defender and a heretic in his own right, was butchered a year and a half later by a Jihad-mad Moroccan youth, who pinned Koranic threats to the film-maker’s chest with a knife after shooting him and, for good measure, cutting his throat down to the spine. For foreigners raised on postcard visions of the Netherlands, the sociopolitical situation suddenly seemed more complex than wooden shoes, windmills, tulips, and hashish.
The more foreigners looked at the murders, the more complex the Dutch immigration scene became. For while both Dutchmen fell victim to the immigration wars intensifying across Europe, neither fit the interlocking and often elaborate stereotypes “watchdogs” and “right-wingers” alike hold of patriots.
Fortuyn was an especially flamboyant homosexual who castigated the racial policies of the Dutch regime from a unique angle: Third World immigration ultimately threatens the liberal, permissive values he felt were the very height of Western Civilization. Fortuyn was a living embodiment of the “liberal dilemma” brought about by political correctness. According to Fortuyn’s analysis, why should non-Europeans be brought into Europe in the name of tolerance when they themselves not only have little respect for such tolerance, but, especially among the Muslims, view it as a weakness, the sign of a decadent and declining social system that should be destroyed? All the old liberal shibboleths are challenged by the darkening of Europe: freedom of expression, women’s rights, religious pluralism. These mean nothing to the new populations that have no historical or cultural investment in Europe’s experience. Pim Fortuyn endangered Europe’s present ruling class because he was able to translate these facts not only into words but into action. Fortuyn reformulated the old arguments about “diversity” and “tolerance” to steal the thunder of those who rely on smears, bromides, and buzzwords to silence dissent. He made the call for a Dutch Netherlands sound politically correct.
Theo van Gogh was of the same order: descended from the family of Vincent van Gogh on his father’s side and bourgeois Socialist aristocracy on his mother’s, van Gogh enjoyed all the indulgences afforded postwar children of his class. No matter what he did, Theo was able to repair to the safe harbor at the family home in Waasenaar, a leafy upper crust suburb of The Hague, a safety net that enabled his convention-flouting behavior for the rest of his life. Early on, Theo explicitly rejected much of the ethos of his Baby Boom generation, claiming to find nothing wholesome in the excesses of his spoiled peers. Something of that cultural epoch did rub off on him, though—van Gogh’s films were often brutishly nihilistic. Van Gogh found himself feted as an intellectual, eventually building a media career for himself, and was given his own television program, where his crass atheism titillated Calvinist viewers (he was once sued for calling Christ “that rotten fish from Nazareth”), and his bons mots about Islamic intolerance and the sociopolitical misuse of Jewish suffering made his audiences nervous, even occasionally litigious, but often struck chords of secret approval. Nicotine stained and foul-mouthed, unwashed and calculatingly uncouth, van Gogh was the Netherlands’ enfant terrible.
The aberrant personalities of both men also stamped their political activism. Fortuyn displayed a flippant attitude to his politics that revealed a desire for attention, hence one wonders how much of his politics was really a just a pose calculated to shock. The same man who wrote that, “This is our country. And if you can’t conform, get the hell out, back to your own country and culture” (p. 67) also made public, pornographic boasts about homosexual escapades with “sweaty Muslim youths.” Similarly, van Gogh’s personality may have impelled him to find a place outside the mainstream of Dutch cultural life, and immigration was certainly not the only area where he flouted the status quo. A part of van Gogh seemed to live to offend, and to be condemned by, others.
Still, such mavericks often make history, and both men were martyred not because of the repellent aspects of their personal lives, but because of the positive nationalistic values they publicly defended. Van Gogh would probably have been somewhat surprised if he’d lived long enough to read the note his killer pinned to his body, addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali Muslim apostate he had championed (and publicly lusted after): “You are not . . . the last to have joined the crusade against Islam.” Whether he liked it or not, in the end van Gogh, the foul-mouthed atheist and self-conscious flouter of tradition, died on Crusade, as one of the Crusaders.
Buruma’s take is complex, charting the life of van Gogh—the legal problems he had with his words in a nation without a First Amendment, his complex family relationships—the old man was a career government spy—and his struggle in his last days with the Islamic threat. Buruma also investigates the interlocking social networks surrounding the assassination, from the nationalists who supported Fortuyn and van Gogh to the Dutch pop scene, which to American eyes looks, like much of the Netherlands, extremely weird at first glance.
Murder in Amsterdam is a True Crime read on two levels; while investigating the actual murder of Theo van Gogh, Buruma also examines a much greater crime: the shortsighted and abysmally managed immigration policy of the Netherlands.
What becomes immediately apparent is that the thinking behind Dutch immigration policy is largely fueled by collective Second World War guilt. Prominent Social Democrat Felix Rottenberg admits as much to Buruma: “feelings of guilt of the postwar generation had a huge influence on politically correct thinking.” This may seem surprising, since the Dutch heroically withstood the German onslaught as long as they could, seeing Rotterdam burned to cinders in the process, and offered a tough little resistance to the German occupation. Nonetheless, as with most other Western nations, the Dutch have been nagged by a feeling that somehow they should have done more, and have overcompensated as a result.
Buruma says this acute awareness of the war “filled [van Gogh] with embarrassment, perhaps even disgust” (p. 87). But on a visit to the national war shrine at Overveen, Theo found the name of an eponymous uncle “among the names of the resisters” (p. 87), a discovery that planted patriotic seeds and an early sense of national pride. This patriotism grew idiosyncratically and at an uneven pace, but strongly enough to eventually get him killed. It certainly didn’t allow him to feel guilty about being Dutch. In a case that went to the Supreme Court, van Gogh was prosecuted and fined for an essay blasting Jewish obsession with and exploitation of the events of the Second World War. His willingness to confront Dutch shibboleths brought him to his final, and fatal, campaign: the crisis of Muslim immigration.
Muslims form the vast bulk of immigrants, legal and illegal, who have settled in Europe. They are an astoundingly fecund population, particularly given European sub-replacement birth rates, and have overwhelmed whole areas. In Amersfoort, site of an old German concentration camp and correspondingly a focus of Dutch guilt, “almost 21 percent are now of foreign origin.” Buruma adds that, “The police estimate that 40 percent of Moroccan boys between the ages of fifteen and seventeen are suspected of criminal behavior” (p. 119).
Adding to the threat is the fact that Muslim migration into Europe is a continuation of a centuries-old historical grudge match. Ever since the Caliphate engaged the Byzantine Empire, Europe and Islam have been in mortal struggle. But while Europeans have been taught, largely under the yoke of misplaced guilt, to forget history, Muslims certainly have not. On the vast welfare housing estates of Europe, unemployable Muslim youth are given an historical focus for their resentment. Buruma discusses a Somali immigrant who “recalls the bloody epics showing the Prophet’s army crushing the barbarous idolaters,” learned as a child (p. 152). In contrast, Dutch kids learn about how cowardly and evil their own forebears allegedly were.
Buruma closely examines the breeding grounds of Islamism in the Netherlands, which nurtured Mohammed Bouyeri, van Gogh’s killer. The place of immigrants in Holland is literally criminal: housed in huge ghettos, these unassimilable people are bearing equally unassimilable children who find no place either in the society of their elders or in the modern Dutch world. The result is crime, welfare dependency, and festering resentment, a Petri dish for Islamist organizing.
The old argument that immigration was needed by the Dutch for economic reasons was played out long ago, but the ruling class has come up with no solution for the massive social nightmare they helped create. Instead, the politicians simply throw cash at the problem, and the media relentlessly harp on “white guilt” to justify the situation.
The problem for the system is that both Fortuyn and van Gogh cut its Gordian Knot: Fortuyn questioned the basic point of the multi-cultural experiment and exposed its malign effects, while van Gogh showed that not only are immigrants, especially Muslims, not blameless victims, but that Dutch “guilt” itself is misplaced.
In looking for the roots of the immigration crisis, Buruma finds a deep political malaise in the Dutch ruling elites, who in the 1990s gave up on even the appearance of ideological substance, wedding the “red” Social Democrats to the “blue” Christian Democrats “to come up with ‘purple’ coalitions. Politicians proudly hailed the new politics as . . . a system based on the . . . spirit of negotiation and watery compromise” (pp. 48–49). The nation is run by technocrats and managers “stuck in a rut of a self-perpetuating elite, shuffling jobs back and forth between members of the club” (pp. 50–51).
Such stasis in the face of a crisis as serious as the immigration debacle guarantees that figures like Fortuyn and van Gogh, and their successor, Geert Wilders, will appear. Buruma highlights case after case of leading Dutch intellectuals and cultural figures like leftist feminist Jolande Withius and ex-Maoist journalist Paul Sheffer, all of whose views boil down to this: “Allowing large communities of alienated Muslims to grow in our midst was a recipe for social and political catastrophe” (p. 125).
And while the “purple” Dutch elite are ideologically disarmed, powerless to cope with the immigration crisis they have created, the Muslims have no such weakness. Their enormous, growing young population, already largely criminally oriented, and with a sense of entitlement enabled by the welfare state, are perfect recruits for militant Islamism, which reinforces their contempt for a system that subsidizes their very existence. In comparison to the “respectable” voices of the “tolerant” Dutch, the single-minded sense of Muslim purpose is startling.
Mohammed Bouyeri’s statement to the court shows a mental landscape shared by millions just like him. Telling Anneke van Gogh, Theo’s mother, that he was unable to “feel her pain” because she was both a woman and an infidel, he was remorseless: “if I were ever released, I would do exactly the same, exactly the same” (p. 189). Bouyeri also unwittingly indicted the Dutch welfare state, with its armies of sociologists, psychologists, academics, and others anxious to “understand” and “help” the teeming immigrant masses: “You can send all your psychologists and all your psychiatrists, and all your experts, but I’m telling you, you will never understand.”
One detects a sense of relief among liberals who question the immigration paradigm at being able to frame the problem as one of religion and culture, as opposed to race. It’s easy to confront Muslim homophobia, sexism, and illiteracy; it’s even vaguely politically correct. But in fact Islam is a problem to the extent that it provides an ideological impetus for a population group that is fundamentally alien, genetically, to Europeans. This is a fact that even Fortuyn, with his Muslim “lovers,” and van Gogh, who expressed a sexual interest in Ayaan Hirsi Ali, were never able to admit.
In fact, Islamism itself is only a fraction of the problem. In the wake of the 2005 French riots, the Elysée looked frantically, and fruitlessly, for the hidden hand of al Qaeda at work. After all, if Osama was pulling the strings, that would be a better explanation than the real one: that France was hostage to millions of unemployable Third World thugs spurred by hatred, avarice, resentment, and contempt.
In short, Buruma shows that the Dutch system confronts a nearly insurmountable problem that challenges its very existence: Third World, primarily Muslim, immigration. Attempts to deal with this catastrophe have only exacerbated the crisis, which the ideologically and morally bankrupt Dutch system is incapable of handling. Into this vacuum of will Fortuyn and van Gogh were drawn and succeeded in breaking large numbers of influential Dutch from their self-imposed sense of white guilt and making discussion of demographics politically acceptable. They also framed their arguments in the dialect of accepted political discourse, with concepts and formulas the political class understands.
Recently European nationalists have been grappling with the complexity of the political universe now that the immigration crisis—and the threat to Western values and very existence of the West itself—has become so acute. This change has created a new relevance, and a new audience, for nationalism’s message. While nationalists have welcomed a measure of “mainstream” acceptance for their anti-immigration concerns, their newfound relevance is also unsettling: now that the gates of nationalism’s political ghetto are open, the world is a wide and often confusing place. Fortuyn and van Gogh encapsulate this challenge to old modes of thinking: What does nationalism mean? What are its goals? Who is to achieve them? And how?
Buruma is particularly helpful for understanding the forces animating much of the nationalist and populist scene in the Netherlands and Europe as a whole today. Not too long ago such movements were “fringe” in every sense—their ideology was dismissed by most (often with justification) as repellant, puerile, “Nazi,” and hateful. Their own orientation, moreover, often led to a cycle of irrelevance, attracting marginal people whose reasons for involvement came from personal inadequacies. This political ghetto is finally being overcome by real world events. The sheer numbers of Third World immigrants are finally forcing “ordinary” people to look for alternatives to both the “mainstream” and the fringe.
Many pre-existing organizations have adapted to this new situation. The Front National of Le Pen was probably the first, with the British National Party, the Vlaams Belang, and groups elsewhere following suit. In the Netherlands, though, this kind of opposition is growing out of the Establishment itself, and brings with it the wealthy donors who are essential to any change.
Buruma reveals his own slight liberal bias when he denigrates a rich man who offers his support to a would-be replacement for Fortuyn. Buruma wonders how a person with such a comfortable lifestyle, far from the Third World slums, could take an interest in the issue. Of course, wealthy supporters of Third World immigration and the politicians who brought it about often have direct material interests in immigration, but the underlying objection seems to be Buruma’s bemusement with the fact that pro-identitarian ideology has become so respectable so fast. After all, it even attracted a popular and acclaimed culture-critic and artist like Theo van Gogh, while Fortuyn’s homosexual orientation, according to orthodox liberalism, should have put him firmly on the side of the immigrants.
Herein lies another deep-seated fear among liberals. Will a patriotic surge come from within the upper echelons of the ruling class? It certainly has in Russia, where ideologues like Aleksandr Dugin provide ideological direction to the technocratic elite that actually gets things done. The epoch of grotty backroom nationalists with marginal personalities and the rhetoric to match may be drawing to a close.
The unease among many liberals, who perhaps sense their own ideological bankruptcy and fear that they are on the wrong historical track, is a phenomenon that we have seen elsewhere, such as the mass media hysterics over the fact that the British National Party had attracted a number of highly successful people from the business and arts worlds.
The new acceptance of anti-immigration thinking has already impacted established nationalist organizations. Most traditions of modern racialism derive from various readings of conservatism, despite the fact that much racial thought has historically had roots in radicalism. For example, the revolutionary socialism of the California Workingmen’s Party led to the Asiatic Exclusion Act, which gave the United States a whites-only immigration policy until the mid-1960s, an objectively much more solid contribution to the white racial integrity of the United States than any “right wing” approach before or since.
If race is the bottom line, then serious racialists will watch very carefully what seems to be a growing development in European politics—the defense of the West in the name of Western liberal values, as seen most starkly in the case of Pim Fortuyn. Despite what today’s liberal orthodoxy may proclaim, tolerance and diversity have no hope in a multicultural West. The immigrants who benefit from political correctness are not wedded to it: far from it, they see it as weakness and a sign that those who proclaim it are ripe for destruction. Pim Fortuyn may be the first of many defectors from political correctness to the side of reason.
The politics of strange bedfellows is necessarily complex, carrying with it both rewards and risks, and how modern nationalists adapt to them should be closely watched. The risks endemic to these sorts of coalitions became apparent after the deaths of Fortuyn and van Gogh, which left the patriotic movement in the Netherlands disoriented. Geert Wilders has become the new champion of the movement, but the coalition itself is not uniformly behind him. Gerard Spong, Fortuyn’s old lawyer, condemed a recent Wilders initiative, telling Dutch television that, “Wilders cannot be compared to Fortuyn because Wilders incites hatred against Muslims, which Fortuyn, who had sex with Moroccan boys in dark rooms, did not do.”
This confusion is partly a function of the rapid development of the Fortuyn/van Gogh phenomenon, but also shows the ideological shallowness of a movement forced to embrace such idiosyncratic men and the recovering liberals who are making uneasy investigations of patriotism from a totally different set of motivations than those that animate racialists. For instance, feminist Jolande Withius frets about “the precarious gains of gender equality and gay rights. I find it terrible that we should be offering social welfare or subsidies to people who refuse to shake hands with a woman” (p. 128).
These kinds of sentiments, like the increasing acceptance of anti-immigration thinking in general, are new, and represent a challenge to the emerging pro-Western resistance, as well as established activist groups. Opposition to the veiling of women is all well and good, but without a clear worldview, such appeals are easily sidelined into single-issue reformism when what is needed is thoroughgoing change. If Western civilization is indeed going to be saved in the name of Western liberalism, we need to formulate exactly what that means.
The reader will come away from Murder in Amsterdam with a sense that change is imminent across the Western world. What that entails remains to be seen, but it is certainly going to be different than many observers have come to expect. As the Netherlands, and the West as a whole, faces a threat to its very genetic existence, this timely, useful, and fascinating book forces us to ask: Will liberalism prove to be merely a racial death-wish, or an integral part of the European fight for survival?