There are two murders in “Murder in Amsterdam.” The first took place on May 6, 2002, when an animal-rights advocate, for obscure reasons, gunned down Pim Fortuyn, a charismatic politician with a populist program combining law-and-order conservatism, opposition to immigration and gay liberation. About a year and a half later a young Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent, incensed by a film critical of Islam, shot the filmmaker-provocateur Theo van Gogh dead in broad daylight. As a parting gesture, he pinned a manifesto to the twitching body with a knife. It was all, as the prime minister of the Netherlands put it, “un-Dutch.”
Well, perhaps more Dutch than it seemed, Ian Buruma proposes in his shrewd, subtly argued inquiry into the tensions and resentments underlying two of the most shocking events in the recent history of the Netherlands. For one thing, both killers traveled to the crime scene by bicycle. More seriously, both murders represented the sort of highly pitched moral confrontation that could be regarded as a Dutch specialty. The killings were, in a sense, “principled murders.”
Mr. Buruma writes ,“It is a characteristic of Calvinism to hold moral principles too rigidly, and this might be considered a vice as well as a virtue of the Dutch.”
Mr. Buruma has made a career of examining foreign cultures, usually Asian, in books like “God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey” and “Inventing Japan.” The murders of Mr. van Gogh and Mr. Fortuyn took him to an unexpected place, his own country.
Mr. Buruma grew up in The Hague, but the country to which he returns in this book is virtually unrecognizable to him, transformed by large numbers of Muslim immigrants from Turkey and Morocco. The multicultural experiment, despite the government’s liberal immigration policies and lavish social services, has not gone well, and Mr. Buruma wants to find out why.
There is no single answer, he discovers, as he sits down with social workers, historians, politicians and writers, some Dutch, others immigrants or the children of immigrants. There are, however, promising avenues to explore, and this he does, economically and suggestively. He traces the evolution of the Netherlands from a sleepy, racially homogenous country to a multicultural haven for immigrants, many Muslim. He also delves into the personal histories of the victims and their assassins, trying to expose the social fault lines that led to murder. The connecting theme is immigration and its discontents, felt by guests and hosts alike.
The improbable Mr. Fortuyn tapped into deep public anxiety over immigration, globalism and national character. Personally outrageous, he hurled abuse at the smooth face of Dutch liberalism, ridiculing its tolerance for Islamic cultural practices that conflicted with social freedom.
Mr. van Gogh, a social gadfly who once described himself as the national village idiot, made a point of offending Islam, just as he made a point of offending the political establishment and anything else within reach: he once called Jesus “that rotten fish from Nazareth.” He miscalculated when, with the Somali immigrant Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he made “Submission,” a film in which lines from the Koran on the role of women were projected onto naked female bodies.
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The Dutch, Mr. Buruma writes, savor irony, and perhaps because their political establishment is so dull, enjoy the politics of outrage. This taste is not shared by the country’s Muslim immigrants. “This was the crowning irony of his life,” Mr. Buruma writes. “Van Gogh, more than anyone, had warned about the dangers of violent religious passions, and yet he behaved as though they held no consequences for him.”
Dutch by upbringing, Mr. Buruma manages to pick up on nuances and historical threads that other writers might easily overlook. He maintains that the argument over immigration cannot be understood without seeing the long shadow of World War II and Anne Frank. Questions of national identity, race and tolerance bear heavy freight. “Never again, said the well-meaning defenders of the multicultural ideal, must Holland betray a religious minority,” Mr. Buruma writes.
That minority seethes. In particular, the offspring of poor, often illiterate Berbers from Morocco have fared poorly in the Netherlands, and Mr. Buruma, with great finesse, explores the sense of displacement and cultural alienation of Muhammad Bouyeri, Mr. van Gogh’s killer, and other young Muslim men drawn to Islamic fundamentalism. For the products of rigid tribal societies, Dutch freedom has often proved to be oppressive, and here Mr. Buruma suggests that Islam might not be the main point.
“More important,” he writes, “was the question of authority, of face, in a household where the father could give little guidance, and in a society from which a young Moroccan male might find it easier to receive subsidies than respect.”
Mr. Fortuyn had a simple solution. Foreigners who did not subscribe to Dutch values should leave. Enlightenment absolutists like Ms. Hirsi Ali and Mr. van Gogh turned apoplectic at any efforts to appease or accommodate Muslims on, say, gay rights or women’s rights, and they were not alone in their fears.
“I find it terrible that we should be offering social welfare or subsidies to people who refuse to shake hands with a woman,” a left-wing feminist tells Mr. Buruma.
Two murders have left the citizens of two cultures, living in the same country, staring at each other across a gulf and wondering how to move forward. Mr. Buruma is not sure, and at the end he disappears in a puff of rhetorical smoke. With the battle lines drawn, he expresses the fond hope that reason and moderation will prevail on both sides. The sentiment falls sweetly on ears tuned to that particular frequency. The question is how to transmit it to a fanatic on a bicycle.