Murder in Amsterdam

by Ian Buruma

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What is the outcome of the fundamentalism vs. enlightenment debate in Buruma's novel?

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Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma's book-length essay on the cultural conflict which resulted in the gruesome 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker-provocateur Theo Van Gogh, is much less a debate between fundamentalist religious values and those of the Enlightenment, than a subtle exploration of an issue that has seized the center stage of global politics in recent years.

In retrospect, the odds of such an outcome seems all but inevitable in light of the magnitude of the chasm between killer and victim. Van Gogh, a self-described "national village idiot," was the co-director of an agitprop film, which featured shots of passages from the Qur'an superimposed on the bodies of naked women. Muhammad Bouyeri, a second-generation Moroccan Muslim, was deeply alienated from his surroundings in the most tolerant democracy in the Western world; a society in which sex and drugs were readily available, and in which the Islamic principle of male dominance over women was non-existent. Indeed, it seems likely that the new sexual freedom of his sister may have contributed to pushing him towards such a heinous act.

Buruma, himself a Dutch national, reflects on the history of a nation that had been at the center of the Enlightenment, and has long prided itself on its tradition of tolerance; a tradition strengthened by the memory of the Holocaust. But, in a country nearly half of whose citizens are now of foreign origin, many from the world of traditional Islam, that tradition is being pushed to the breaking point. For many of the latter group, the absence of a culture of rigorous restrictions in which social and political life are completely penetrated with religious belief is a constant existential threat.

The author interviews a number of his fellow citizens, natives and immigrants alike, with empathy for those on both sides of the issue. But, as one might have guessed, he is unable to offer any clear solution, aside from a call for reason and moderation, to a conflict which continues to be a source of global tragedy.

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The fundamentalist and enlightenment values addressed in the novel Murder in Amsterdam by Ian Buruma are in permanent conflict with each other.  The central focus of the novel is the murder of enlightenment representative Theo van Gogh by a fundamentalist representative in the form of the son of Moroccan immigrants, who is also a Muslim by faith.

The conflict of which the murder is a culmination is based within the irreconcilable differences between the apparent irreverence of the enlightenment towards any fundamentalist claims to faith. Theo van Gogh did not take himself, or anybody else, very seriously, and this was the main reason for his murder.

In this light, one might surmise that both the enlightenment and fundamentalist positions have flaws in terms of failing to make concessions for the position of the other.  Indeed, the positions are similar in their stubborn denial of the other to exist. This denial is the main cause for the inability of the two positions to reconcile or to tolerate.

This denial is also the fundamental reason for the murder.

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