Theo van Gogh was an asshole. Even his friends thought so—that is why they loved him. He wrote inflammatory newspaper columns, made juvenile scatological movies, and delighted in outraging everyone, especially the ostensibly liberal Dutch political establishment, whom he called "arrogant elitists," and Muslim immigrants, whom he called "goat fuckers." The former tolerated him. One of the latter murdered him.
On November 2, 2004. Van Gogh—a descendent of that Van Gogh—had just made a provocative movie called Submission featuring naked women with Koranic text projected against their bodies. He was riding his bicycle through Amsterdam. A second-generation Muslim immigrant named Mohammed Bouyeri, also on a bicycle, rode up and shot the Dutch icon, cut his throat, wrote a quick manifesto, and stuck it to Theo's chest with a knife. Patrol cars pulled up, there was a shootout, and Mohammed B. (as he's referred to in this book) was arrested. Amsterdam, the self-perceived beacon of liberalism, exploded in a rage.
The Netherlands, like many European countries, struggles with its immigrant problem. The social-welfare states that traditionally look down on the crass, capitalistic hurly-burly of the United States are failing miserably in the one job that the U.S. excels at—integrating newcomers.
Ian Buruma, who was born in the Netherlands, knew Van Gogh slightly as a young contemporary. "We had mutual friends and did the odd radio show together. He invited me to be on his TV talk show, called A Friendly Conversation, which, in fact, it was. Not being a member of the Amsterdam cafe society or the local literary scene, I had escaped the lash of his often venomous politics." Buruma also escaped Europe for America, where he became a confirmed member of the literary scene, a professor at Bard College and, more importantly, an excellent writer with a gift for navigating through treacherous oceans of received wisdom to find the truths that escape lesser thinkers.
As its subtitle attests, Murder in Amsterdam is about the limits of tolerance, but that is a euphemism for the thorny conflict at the heart of liberalism, which has haunted political philosophers since Locke and Rousseau: Are liberal, multicultural states supposed to protect minority groups (immigrants, gays) from the tyranny of the majority or are they supposed to protect vulnerable individuals (women, children) from the tyranny of all groups, minority and majority? For example: Should secular states protect Islamic culture by allowing separate swimming classes at elementary schools or promote gender equality by forcing Muslim boys and girls to swim together, even if it violates their religious beliefs? Buruma asks variations on those questions across the Netherlands, of both native Dutch (politicians, writers) and Moroccans (politicians, writers, rappers, imams).
Buruma's best sections are profiles: One is of Pim Fortuyn, the gay, conservative, and fiercely anti-immigrant politician who was gunned down by another bike-riding assassin—weirdly, a vegan upset about Fortuyn's fur collars and ostentatious style. Another is about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who began her life as a devout Muslim from Kenya and eventually became a polarizing anti-Muslim provocateur who collaborated with Van Gogh on Submission and was directly threatened in the bloody manifesto that Mohammed B. stuck to Van Gogh's chest. Some, like Ali, answer that Islam is a tyrannical religion that should be discouraged. Others say the fault is with the Dutch—that public insults and private discrimination drive poor young men to a perverse Islamic radicalism in a desperate grasp for purpose and dignity. Buruma is a believer in the secular-liberal project but expresses reservations about Ali's (and Van Gogh's) vitriol. "Attacking religion cannot be the answer," he writes, "for the real threat to a mixed society will come when the mainstream of non-revolutionary Muslims has lost all hope of feeling at home."
To this end, he reminds us that the most radical Islamists in Europe, like Mohammed B., are second-generation immigrants. Their Muslim parents did not arrive from the hinterlands of Arabia to attack infidels. (I speak from Buruma's reporting as well as some personal experience, having spent a year living in Spain as an illegal immigrant, living among illegal Moroccan immigrants.) The typical first-generation immigrant sticks to his work and his family, speaks only a few words of his adopted country's language, and busts his ass so his children can go to college and study a trade.
This is where the trouble seems to start: The children are materially better off than they would be in their home countries, but buckle under the humiliation of living with a contemptuous native population while being dependent on their welfare state, "a society from which a young Moroccan male might find it easier to receive subsidies than respect." They are at home nowhere—not in the old country, not in the new country. Some plow through, finish their degrees, and enter the mainstream. Some give up and become small-time thugs. Some find comfort in a creed that justifies their rage and frustration and become Europe-hating Islamists. A surprising number lose their minds. As Buruma learns from a Dutch doctor, beaten-down first-generation Moroccans tend to suffer from depression, but "a young Moroccan male of the second generation was ten times more likely to be schizophrenic than a native Dutchman from a similar economic background." Schizophrenia: a disorder marked by dissolution of individual personality, loss of contact with the real world, and extreme paranoia. Sounds like a description of extreme religious fundamentalism.
Buruma is no soft-spined, reflexive relativist, but he recognizes that the problem of radical Islamism is less theological than sociological—something happens in Europe that freaks these kids right out.
He is also a sharp observer of the less high-minded (and sometimes exploitative) aspects of the secular-liberal project—and a vivid writer. There is a tremendous passage about Amsterdam's red-light district: "The virtually naked 'window prostitutes,' from all the poor countries in the world, pose in their dimly lit rooms... It is easier in that part of town to buy a large electric dildo than a newspaper. Drunken Englishmen in T-shirts and razor haircuts slouch past the windows in groups, sniggering and pointing at the girls from Guatemala and Ukraine...."
While Buruma was a friend of Van Gogh, admires Ali, and is an advocate of democracy, drugs, and sex, he remains clear-eyed about their shortcomings: "Perhaps Western civilization, with the Amsterdam red-light district as its fetid symbol, does have something to answer for... What happened in this small corner of northwestern Europe could happen anywhere, as long as young men and women feel that death is their only way home."