Murder in Amsterdam

by Ian Buruma

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Murder in Amsterdam

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When on November 2, 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri shot thirty-nine-year-old Theo van Gogh and cut his throat with a curved machete, he used a second knife to pin on Van Gogh’s chest a note calling for a holy war against unbelievers. The note was addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had written the film called Submission (2004) that Van Gogh had directed to protest Islamic abuse of women. The film’s projection of passages from the Qurՙn onto the naked bodies of young women agitated the Netherlands’s large Muslim community and especially inflamed the intense Bouyeri. The author of this eleven-minute documentary, Hirsi Ali, was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1970 but lived in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Ethiopia before settling with her parents in Kenya, where she was residing when in 1992 her father put her on a plane to Canada to marry a cousin. Upon landing in Frankfurt, however, she phoned a Somali acquaintance who arranged for her passage to Volendam, the Netherlands, and a home with a Somali woman who helped her win political asylum.

Hirsi Ali found a married couple with whom to live and to teach her Dutch. Still a devout Muslim while living with her hosts in the village of Ede, after studying political science at Leiden University Hirsi Ali read Atheïstisch manifest: Drie wijsgerige opstellen over godsdienst en moraal (1995; atheist manifesto: three philosophical essays on religion and morality) by a Dutch philosophy professor named Herman Philipse, had a love affair with Philipse, and abandoned her faith. Buruma states that “intellectual, political, and sexual liberty were intimately linked in Ayaan’s mind.” Her newfound convictions made her a defendant of the Enlightenment values that she says she learned from such thinkers as Karl Popper, Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Hayek, and Norbert Elias. The Enlightenment, Hirsi Ali says, “strips away culture, and leaves only the human individual.”

By this time, in 2002, Hirsi Ali was a member of the Dutch parliament and speaking openly against Islam much to the anger of the Netherlands’s large Muslim minority. Her most provocative act came in a television documentary in which she asked twelve-year-old Muslim students to declare their main allegiance, to Allah or the Dutch constitution. When they chose Allah, she lectured them on how the constitution forbade the rejection of Jews and homosexuals as taught in the Qurՙn. Critics claimed she was encouraging violence, and multiculturalists of the Left began to see her as a sympathizer with the established white male party of regenten, or free enterprise conservatives. The regenten, however, resented her disturbing the status quo. The controversy convinced her to write a screenplay spoofing Mohammed, and she enlisted the irreverent Theo van Gogh to direct it.

Van Gogh was just the right person for Hirsi Ali’s project. He came from a prosperous family in the Wassenaar suburb of The Hague, and his father, Johan, was the grandson of Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent van Gogh, the famous painter. The family has always had what Buruma calls a “rebellious streak.” Johan’s brother, also named Theo, refused to sign the Nazi loyalty oath and joined the Resistance where he forged papers and hid Jews but was arrested in 1945 and executed. His mother’s family, the Wibauts, helped found the Social Democratic Party and also participated in the Resistance.

Theo’s own career had followed in the spirit of the 1960’s when Dutch youths participated in the revolt against the authority of the middle aged. Buruma identifies the 1964 satirical television program Zo is het toevallig ook nog’is een keer (that’s the way things happen to be) as the...

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beginning of the rebellion. The third program in the series,Beeldreligie (screen religion), ridiculed the devotion of middle-class homes to television. A student read passages from the Bible with the word “screen” substituted for “God,” a blasphemy that elicited widespread outrage and threats of violence, especially from Dutch Nazis. The rebels were known as Provos, short for Provocateurs, and in his teens Theo van Gogh became one of their heirs.

Unlike the vicious character portrayed in his favorite film, A Clockwork Orange (1965), the young Theo was no criminal, but his argumentativeness, his smashing of neighborhood windows, and his contribution of his father’s best wines to his all-night parties forced his mother to evict him once he had finished high school. He then became a bohemian, wandering around Amsterdam drinking and taking drugs. In 1981 several rich friends financed his first film, Luger, a “black farce” about the kidnapping of a young woman confined to a wheelchair. The film’s brutality won it enough attention that he went on to make twenty-three more films, some showing “boldness and originality.”

Van Gogh’s most reprehensible acts came when he began insulting Jews. Buruma speculates that the Rotterdam soccer hooligans who jeered at Amsterdam fans as “filthy Jews” did so because in post-Holocaust Europe anti-Semitism was the most powerful taboo and that Van Gogh may have capitalized on this fact for its publicity value. It may also have been jealousy of the successful Jewish filmmaker and novelist Leon de Winter that prompted Van Gogh’s repulsive attack on De Winter in the film magazine Moviola. For these remarks Van Gogh was sued by the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel. Even though he was judged guilty, he published the same articles again but this time the courts ruled in his favor, allowing him to continue his provocative commentary. Given the personality revealed in this behavior, it is easy to understand why he was attracted to Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she was attacked for her criticism of Islam.

At the time of his death, Van Gogh was working on a film about the assassination in May, 2002, of the hugely popular political aspirant Pim Fortuyn by an unknown animal rights activist, Volkert van der Graaf. Buruma describes Fortuyn as a flashy dresser, a gay “showboat,” who as a child fantasized about becoming pope. Fortuyn’s funeral was a public spectacle, with excited crowds singing the English soccer anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the funeral cortege passed through the streets. The long white funeral car was followed by Fortuyn’s own Daimler driven by his butler. The Slave Chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (1871) blared out through the Daimler’s speakers, and Fortuyn’s two spaniels, Kenneth and Carla, sat up front with the butler and were led into the cathedral for the funeral mass. This adulation was confirmed when in a poll held in 2004 to name the greatest figure in Dutch history Pim Fortuyn took first place, leaving Rembrandt and Erasmus as mere also-rans.

There were few parallels in the lives of Volkert van der Graaf and Mohammed Bouyeri. Mohammed’s Sunni parents came from a poor village in the Rif mountains of Morocco in 1965 and raised eight children on his father’s salary as a dishwasher. Mohammed was not especially religious as a youth, but when he was sixteen his group’s request for a new youth club was rejected and a small riot occurred at the old club. This encounter with the law was followed three years later, in 1997, by a brawl in an Amsterdam coffee shop. In 2004 Mohammed’s behavior grew worse. When one of his sisters took a Moroccan boyfriend, Mohammed started a fight with him and, angry with his father for not disciplining his sister, left home. Soon he was in a street fight and ended up in jail when he slashed a Turkish policeman in the neck. Freed in three months, he suffered a blow when his mother died of breast cancer.

Somewhat at a loss about his life, Mohammed quickly came under the spell of a Syrian-born radical Muslim preacher named Mohammed Radwan Alissa, known as Abou Khaled. Mohammed and a small circle of other confused young men quickly accepted Abu Khaled’s extreme Islamic teaching called Takfir, a faith that required Muslims to kill other Muslims who lived like infidels. Dutch intelligence named them the Hofstad Group and thought it possible that they had ties to European jihadist organizations. They met at Mohammed’s apartment, downloaded DVDs from Islamist Web sites, and thrilled to scenes of foreigners having their throats cut. Mohammed was the “house intellectual,” in Buruma’s phrase, who posted violent messages extolling the Sharia on Web sites under the pseudonym Abu Zubair.

Volkert van der Graaf did not murder Pim Fortuyn as part of a jihad, but a common intensity can nevertheless be discerned in their psychology. The liberalism of democratic nations such as America repelled the earnest Mohammed with their fleshly pleasures and materialism. From his perspective, the Netherlands’s generous vision of the good life exceeded all decent bounds in its freewheeling saturnalia of open promiscuity and tolerance for multiculturalism. Buruma concludes: “In the muddled mind of Mohammed Bouyeri, then, ran a deep current of European antiliberalism combined with self-righteous moralism and Islamic revolutionary fervor.” The animal>rights defender van der Graaf hated factory farming and had fought mink farmers through the courts. Fortuyn sneered at environmentalists as whiners and wore fur collars on his winter coats, but Buruma thinks that van der Graaf hated Fortuyn because of his vanity, flashy dressing, and ostentatious public preening. Van der Graaf’s contempt followed from his Calvinistic moral sense, a feature of the Dutch sensibility that Buruma considers a vice as well as a virtue. For Buruma, “The two killings, of Van Gogh and Fortuyn, were principled murders.”

Theo van Gogh’s mother, Anneke van Gogh, described Islam to Buruma as “a fossilized religion” that had “never had an Enlightenment.” This common criticism of Islam is elaborated on by Afshan Ellian, a law professor at Leiden University. Ellian, an immigrant from Iran, maintains a team of bodyguards to protect him from zealots who seethe over his newspaper column’s blistering political views on Islam. A strong believer in the virtues of the European Enlightenment, Ellian argues that divine laws cannot trump man’s laws in a liberal democracy. He accuses European intellectuals with their “self-hating nihilism and utopian anti-Americanism” of having lost the nerve to defend Enlightenment values. The European welfare state has failed, multiculturalism has spawned anarchy, and only America is willing to use its power.

Buruma sums it up this way. For many years the Left had identified with Enlightenment ideals like universalism and scientific socialism, while the Right believed in culture and its own traditions. The multicultural revolution of the 1970’s and 1980’s turned this all around so that the Left came to stand for “their” cultures and traditions (the immigrants’) and the conservative Right pledged itself to the universal values of the Enlightenment. The clash between Ellian’s Enlightenment and Bouyeri’s jihad, however, should be seen, says Buruma, as a struggle “between two different visions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious.”

In a postscript Buruma notes that in April, 2006, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was told she had to vacate her guarded apartment in The Hague because her neighbors were afraid of violence. She announced she would move to the United States and criticized the Netherlands for tolerating a “terrible regime of political correctness.” Others felt the backlash against multiculturalism: An Iraqi family, refugees from Syria and Congo, and a schoolgirl from Kosovo were all deported. Then on November 17, 2006, the Dutch government announced it was outlawing the Muslim burqa in all public places.


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Booklist 102, no. 21 (July 1, 2006): 23.

Commentary 122, no. 3 (October, 2006): 72-76.

The Economist 380 (September 2, 2006): 74-75.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 11 (June 1, 2006): 554.

London Review of Books, December 14, 2006, pp. 11-13.

National Review 58, no. 22 (December 4, 2006): 48-49.

The New York Review of Books, October 5, 2006, pp. 32-35.

The New York Times 155 (September 13, 2006): E6.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (September 10, 2006): 8.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 22 (May 29, 2006): 46.

The Spectator 302 (October 14, 2006): 49-50.