What role does gender play in Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam? Are there competing understandings of gender in the book? If so, where do they come from?

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Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam is a nonfiction examination of the circumstances surrounding the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo Van Gogh, a great-grandson of the brother of painter Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s murder by a Dutch Muslim named Mohammad Bouyeri was a calculated, cold-blooded act of vengeance by a committed Islamist against someone labeled an enemy of Islam among the Netherlands’ large Muslim population. Van Gogh’s disdain for Muslims and Jews alike had already marked him as a prominent but intolerant nationalist in a country with its share of ardent nationalists. What makes Buruma’s book, which, by the way, is not a novel, important with regard to gender is the contents of a letter pinned with a knife to the chest of Van Gogh by his murderer. That letter was a typical barely-coherent political-religious tract against non-Muslims by an under-educated radical. By itself, it was not particularly significant. Its significance, beyond providing a motive for the murder, was in the individual to whom Bouyeri’s note was addressed: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent female Dutch politician and former Muslim who collaborated with Van Gogh on a film project highlighting the horrible way women are treated in many Islamic countries and cultures. That film, Submission, was intentionally—consistent with Van Gogh’s temperament and style—inflammatory. That its director should be murdered, shot several times and then have his throat cut, and Hirsi Ali threatened because of the film, however, was illustrative of the tensions that have permeated much of Europe in the past decade—tensions now reaching their breaking point with the mass migration of Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa to much of Europe.

The role of gender in Murder in Amsterdam, then, derives from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s political activism in defense of female dignity and rights. Hirsi Ali remains active in discussions about the plight of women in Muslim culture, and her life is under a constant state of threat as a result. It is the issue of women’s rights in Muslim culture, however, that is so divisive and so central to Buruma’s narrative. One cannot divorce the precipitating event in Murder in Amsterdam from that issue. Similarly, one cannot divorce Van Gogh’s brutal murder from the cultural divide between Western, Christian Dutch and Middle East and Asian Muslims. Buruma is of Dutch extraction, and his book constituted a close examination of the growing cultural fissures that are tearing his native land apart. To the extent that the question revolves around the issue of gender, however, the focus of what follows will be oriented towards that issue.

Hirsi Ali has become very well known around the world for her activism on behalf of Muslim women. That stance has made her anathema to millions of Muslim men and some women. Discussing Hirsi Ali and her Iranian-born colleague Afshin Ellian, a male whose life is also under a constant, and probably permanent state of threat (Buruma mentions Ellian’s “team of bodyguards” checking out the café where they last met) because of his criticisms of the intolerance endemic to many Muslim cultures across the Middle East and South Asia. At one point, Buruma describes these two lonely voices as “warriors on a battlefield inside the world of Islam. . .[who] are also struggling against oppressive cultures that force genital mutilation on young girls and marriage with strangers on young women.” Gender, then, plays a very large role in Murder in Amsterdam.

While issues of gender play a major role in Murder in Amsterdam, they are only part of a larger story about the difficulties Muslims have long faced integrating into Dutch society. Dating back to the Indonesian Moluccas who served Dutch colonial authorities in what was then-called the Dutch East Indies and who were subsequently, following Indonesian independence, brought to the Netherlands for their own protection from vengeful Muslims angry at the Moluccans, some of whom were Christian. Subsequent waves of migrants from Muslim regions have similarly found it difficult assimilating into Dutch culture—a phenomenon common across much of Europe. Deep divisions, therefore, remain in the Netherlands between Dutch nationalists struggling to retain their identity and Muslim populations resentful of their treatment. In one passage, Buruma describes a Moroccan Muslim youth whose father had emigrated to the Netherlands only to be subjected to demeaning treatment at the hands of native Dutch. Such impressions cannot but have a deleterious effect on that youth, witnessing their parents being treated as second-class citizens, or worse, as foreigners of an inferior race and culture.

To the extent that Buruma includes in his book a discussion of alternative perspectives with regard to issues of gender, it is in the chapter titled “A Dutch Tragedy.” In this chapter, the author presents competing perspectives, including those of Muslim women, some of whom see the issue as being exaggerated by activists like Hirsi Ali. There is no question, though, that the preponderance of such anecdotes serve as an indictment of the treatment of women in Muslim cultures. Describing one gathering of Muslim women in The Hague, a city with a large Muslim population, Buruma notes the divisions among women between those who believe their inferior, and often violent, treatment stems from their religion and others who view that treatment as emanating more from village or tribal customs. For readers of Buruma’s book, however, this is a distinction without a difference. Buruma, for instance, quotes one of the women as arguing that the problem has more to do with village cultures where “its normal for women to be beaten.” Those villages, however, are in Muslim-dominant regions or countries, in this case, Morocco. As the author quotes another of the female attendees at these gatherings, “all my Turkish and Moroccan girlfriends have had to cope with domestic violence.” The religious aspect cannot be separated from the cultural one.

Murder in Amsterdam is a depressing study of the clash of cultures that is taking place across Europe. While it understandably, given the author’s heritage and the incident regarding Theo Van Gogh, uses the Netherlands as its focal point, the underlying problems can be applied to much of the European continent. And gender is a major component of these problems.