Murder in Amsterdam

by Ian Buruma

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How does "Murder in Amsterdam" define Europeans in relation to Enlightenment and Islamist fundamentalism?

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Buruma defines Europeans in the following way in respect to the Enlightenment. He says that before multiculturalism and postmodernism emerged in the 1970s, left wing Europeans found Enlightenment values in the ideas of universal truths and empirical science. Right wing Europeans, on the other hand, found Enlightenment values in their own culture and traditions. After the 1970s, the left and right in Europe switched, with the left embracing an Enlightened multiculturalism that defended cultural diversity and especially the rights of non-European cultures, while the right came to embrace the Enlightenment as comprised of universal values that transcended particular cultural norms.

Buruma sees Anneke van Gogh, the murdered Theo van Gogh's mother, who stated to him that Islam was a "fossilized" religion that had never "had an Enlightenment," as embracing the new right wing version of European Enlightenment thinking. So too, says Burama, does Afshan Ellian, a Dutch professor of Middle Eastern descent, who comes down the side of universal laws, saying these take precedence over the particularities of any culture's religious beliefs.

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Europeans in the novel are described from two main viewpoints; the secular, liberal white European viewpoint, and the more traditionalist, fundamentalist Islam viewpoint. In the novel, Theo van Gogh is portrayed as the representative of secular white society. During his life, he published inflammatory pieces against all the cultures represented in the city, including Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Rather than being concerned with creating a sense of central value, Van Gogh is instead the portrayal of a lack of any value or belief system, like many Europeans in the city.  From Van Gogh’s and his friends’ viewpoints, this loss of foundation in terms of value or faith is a manifestation of the “spirit of the time,” which they embrace with happy abandon.

Others, like Van Gogh’s Islam killer, however, are not so happy to do this. From their viewpoint, all that religious groups such as Muslims hold dear to their hearts and minds are being mocked and derided by Europeans like Van Gogh.  From this viewpoint, Europeans and their flippant attitude is the reason for intolerance and hatred.  From the European viewpoint, on the other hand, the fundamentalist and non-yielding attitude of religious groups is responsible for the same thing.

There seems to be little hope of reconciliation between these extremes, according to the novel.

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