Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limit of Tolerance

Ian Burma
Penguin Press
Chapter 1 Pages 15 to 19 and 24 to 30

Holland, and Amsterdam in particular, has a long history of taking in foreigners. Sephardic Jews arrived from Antwerp and farther south in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, many of them refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. The Dutch Republic in its Golden Age was wealthy and offered religious freedom. This actually prompted many Jews, who had let their traditions lapse or been forced to convert to Catholicism, to revive their faith. A large Portuguese synagogue was built in Amsterdam between 1671 and 1675, and another was built by Polish and German Ashkenazim in 1670. For a long time, Jews, many of them very poor, suffered from all kinds of professional and social restrictions, but they were not persecuted, until the Germans arrived in 1940. This earned Amsterdam the Yiddish name of Mokum, the City.

The Huguenots, like the Jews, found refuge in the north from persecution. They escaped to the Dutch Republic after Louis XIV revoked their religious freedom in 1685. Holland enjoyed the fruits of the Enlightenment before most other countries in Europe. It is surely no coincidence that the so-called early Enlightenment of the Dutch Republic was partly inspired by the ideas of a son of Sephardic refugees in Amsterdam, Benedictus (Baruch) de Spinoza.

Holland’s reputation for hospitality is deserved, but immigration in the 20d’ century is also a story of horror, opportunism, post-colonial obligations and an odd combination of charity and indifference. Few Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany - Anne Frank, for one - survived the German occupation. Their fate was certainly not welcomed by most gentiles in Holland, but despite the bravery of many indviduals, too little was done to help them. Altogether 71 % of all Jews in the Netherlands ended up in death camps, the highest percentage in Europe outside Poland. That is the horror that still hangs over Dutch life like a toxic cloud. Largely unmentioned until the 1960s, the shame of it still poisons national debates to this day.

The end of empire in the Dutch East Indies, despite the problems with Moluccans, was less traumatic. The violence happened too far away. And those Eurasians and Indonesians who chose to move to the Netherlands in the 1940s and 1950s were relatively small in number, generally well-educated, and easily absorbed. The same was true of the first wave of Surinamese from the former colony of Dutch Guiana. Arriving in the 1960s, when the Dutch economy boomed, these mostly middle-class men and women found work as nurses, civil servants, or teachers. The dirty work, in the boom years, was done by “guest workers” from Turkey and Morocco, single men cooped up in cheap hostels, prepared to do almost anything to provide for their families back home. These men were not expected to stay. One of them was Mohammed Bouyeri’s father.

It was the second wave of Surianmese, arriving around 1972, that began to cause problems. Newly independent Suriname was shedding people, hundreds of thousands of them, mostly the descendents of African slaves. It is said that a sign at Paramaribo airport read: “Will the last Surinamese please turn off the lights”. The oil shock in 1973, when Arab oil producers punished the Netherlands with an embargo for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, had created a crisis in the Dutch economy. There were no longer enough jobs for the guest workers from Turkey or Morocco, let alone for more than 200.000 newcomers from a Caribbean backwater.

The result was widespread unemployment, dependence on the welfare state, petty crime, and a vicious circle of social discrimination and sporadic violence. There are still many Surinamese without an official job, perhaps as many as 30%, but the Surinamese are no longer a “problem.” They always speak Dutch, excell at football, and by and large have been moving steadily into the middle-class. Like the West Indians in Britain, they are not universally welcomed, but still recognized as an exotic yet integral part of the national culture.

The same is not true of the guest workers, and their off-spring. Like the Moluccans, these men were not regarded as immigrants. Their stay was supposed to have been temporary, to clean out oil tankers, work in steel factories, sweep the streets. When many of them elected to remain anyway, the government took the benevolent view that in that case they should be joined by their wives and children. Slowly, almost without anyone noticing, old working-class Dutch neighbourhoods lost their white populations and were transformed into “dish cities” linked to Morocco, Turkey and the Middle East by satellite television and Internet. Grey Dutch streets filled up, not only with satellite dishes, but Moroccan bakeries, Turkish kebab joints, travel agents offering cheap flights Istanbul or Casablanca, and coffee houses, filled with sad-eye men in jellabas, whose health had often been wrecked by years of dirty and dangerous labor. Their wives, isolated in cramp modern apartment blocks, usually failed to learn Dutch, had little knowledge of the strange land in which they had been dumped, sometimes to be married to strange men, and had to be helped in the simplest tasks by their children, who learn faster how to cope without necessarily feeling at home.

The Turks, backed by a variety of social and religious institutions, formed a relatively close-knit community of shopkeepers and professionals. Grocery stores in Amsterdam are often owned by Turks, and so are pizzerias. If Turks turn to crime, it is organized crime, sometimes linked to the old country - financial fraud, illegal immigration, hard drugs. There are links to political violence in Turkey, to do with militant nationalism or the Kurdish question, but not so much with revolutionary Islam. That appears to be more a Moroccan problem.

Moroccans in the Netherlands are mostly Berbers, not Arabs, from remote villages in the Rif mountains. Like Sicilian peasants, they are clannish people, widely distrusted by urban Moroccans, and often, especially the women, illiterate. Less organized, with the narrow horizons of village folk, and awkwardly wedged between the North African and European worlds, Moroccan immigrants lack the kinds of institutional support that give the Turkish immigrants a sense of belonging. Those who manage, through intelligence, perseverance and good fortune, to make their way in Dutch society, often do very well indeed Those who don’t for one reason or another, drift easily into a seedy world without exit of gang violence and petty crime. Most vulnerable of all are those who find their ambitions blocked despite their attempts to fit in with the mainstream of Dutch life. Anything can trigger a mood of violent resentment and self-destruction: a job offer withdrawn, a grant not given, one too many doors shut in one’s face. Such a man was Mohammed Bouyeri, who adopted a brand of Islamic extremism unknown to his father, a broken-backed former gastarbeiter from the Rif mountains, and decided to join a war against the society from which he felt excluded. Unsure of where he belonged, he lost himself in a murderous cause.

During the last few decades, the guest workers and their children were joined by another group of newcomers, many of them scarred by political violence: Tamils from Sri Lanka, Syrians and Iranians, Somali escapees from civil war, Iraqis, Bosnians, Egyptians, Chinese, and many more. Since Holland, like all European countries, almost never accepts immigrants who come for economic reasons, people try to get in as asylum seekers. Some are in genuine danger, some are not, but until recently most managed, in one way or another, to stay on, legally or otherwise. When an Israeli cargo plane crashed into a poor suburb of Amsterdam in 1992, the number of victims was impossible to calculate, since the housing estates were filled with illegals. Even the official statistics in Amsterdam are remarkable. In 1999 45% of the population was of foreign origin. If projections are right, this will be 52% in 2015. And the majority will be Muslim…

Not just academics, but politicians and popular columnists saw the Enlightenment as the fortress to be defended against Islamist extremism. The jihad in which Mohammed Bouyeri served as a mere footsoldier was seen, not just by Ellian and Hirsi Ali, as our contemporary Counter-Enlightenment, and conservative politicians, such as the former VVD leader and European commissioner Frits Bolkestein, jumped into the breach for the free-thinking values of Spinoza and Voltaire. One of the main claims of Enlightenment philosophy is that its ideas based on reason are by definition universal. But the Enlightenment has a particular appeal to some conservatives, because its values are not just universal, but more importantly, “ours”, that is, European, Western values.

Bolkestein, a former business executive with intellectual interests that set him apart from most professional politicians, was the first mainstream politician to warn about the dire consequences of accepting too many Muslim immigrants, whose customs clashed with “our fundamental values”. Certain values, he claimed, such as gender equality, or the separation of church and state, are not negotiable. We met on several occasions in Amsterdam, and when it was time to part he would invariably say: “We must talk more next time about the lack of confidence in Western civilization.” Like Afshin Ellian, he frets about European weakness. That is why he worries about the possibility of Turkey, with its 68 million Muslims, joining the European Union. For it would, in his view, spell the end of Europe, not as a geographical entity, but as a community of values, born from the Enlightenment.

Fifteen years ago, when Bolkestein first talked about the threat to fundamental values, he was a hateful figure to the left, a fear-monger, even a racist. The main focus of his attack was the idea of cultural relativism, the common notion among leftists that immigrants should be allowed to retain their own “identity.” But something interesting happened along the way. There is a long and frequently poisonous history in European politics of leftwing internationalism and conservative defence of traditional values. The left was on the side of universalism, scientific socialism, and the like, while the right believed in culture, in the sense of “our culture”, “our traditions”. During the multi-cultural age of the 1970s and 1980s, this debate began to shift. It was now the left that stood for culture and tradition, especially “their” cultures and traditions, that is those of the immigrants, while the right argued for the universal values of the Enlightenment. The problem in this debate was the fuzzy border between what was in fact universal and what was merely “ours.”

But the real shift came when a well-known sequence of events drove many former leftists into the conservative camp. First came the Salman Rushdie affair: “their” values were indeed clashing with “ours”; a free spirited cosmopolitan writer was being threatened by an extreme version of an alien religion. Then New York was attacked. And now Theo van Gogh, “our” Salman Rushdie, was dead. Leftists, embittered by what they saw as the failure of multi-culturalism, or fired up by the anti-clericalism of their revolutionary past, joined conservatives in the battle for the Enlightenment. Bolkestein became a hero for people who used to despise him.

On first sight, the clash of values appears to be straightforward: on the one hand, secularism, science, equality between men and women, individualism, freedom to criticize without fear of violent retribution, and on the other, divine laws, revealed truth, male domination, tribal honor, and so on. It is indeed hard to see how in a liberal democracy these contrasting values can be reconciled. How could one not be on the side of Frits Bolkestein, or Afshin Ellian, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali? But a closer look reveals fissures that are less straightforward. People come to the struggle for Enlightenment from very different angles, and even when they find common ground, their aims may be less than enlightened.

Hirsi Ali and Ellian are often accused of fighting the battles of their own past on European soil, as though they had smuggled a non-Western crisis into a peaceful Western country. Traumatized by Khomeini’s revolution or an oppressive Muslim upbringing in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenia, they turned against the faith of their fathers and embraced a radical version of the European Enlightenment: Hirsi Ali, the heiress of Spinoza, and Ellian as Nietzsche’s disciple. They are warriors on a battlefield inside the world of Islam. But they are also struggling against oppressive cultures that force genital mutilation on young girls, and marriage with strangers on young women. The bracing air of universalism is a release from tribal traditions.

But the same could be said, in a way, of their greatest enemy: the modern holy warrior, like the killer of Theo van Gogh. The young Moroccan-Dutch youth downloading English translations of Arabic texts from the Internet, is also looking for a universal cause, severed from cultural and tribal specificities. The promised purity of modern Islamism, which is after all a revolutionary creed, has been disconnected from cultural tradition. That is why it appeals to those who feel displaced, in the suburbs of Paris or Bradford no less than in Amsterdam. They are stuck between cultures they find equally alienating. The war between Ellian’s Enlightenment and Bouyeri’s jihad is not a straightforward clash between culture and universal km, but between two different visions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious. The radically secular society of post-1960s Amsterdam which looks like the promised land to a sophisticated refugee from religious revolution, is unsettling to the confused son of an immigrant from the remote countryside of Morocco.

But not every pious Muslim is a potential terrorist. To see religion, even religious orthodoxy, as the main enemy of Enlightenment values, is misleading. For even though the modern terrorist has latched onto a religious faith, he might as well have chosen - and in different times did choose - a radically secular creed to justify his thirst for violent death.

Besides, there is a difference between the anti-clericalism of Voltaire, who was up against one of the two most powerful institutions of 18th century France, and radical secularists battling a minority within an already embattled minority.

There is also a difference between the 18th century philosophers and conservative Dutch politicians of the 21st century. The pioneers of the Enlightenment were iconoclasts, with radical ideas about politics and life. The Marquis de Sade was a typical man of the Enlightenment, as much as Diderot. In terms of Islam, Ellian and Hirsi Ali are certainly iconoclasts.

It is harder to see a link between a respectable conservative EU commissioner and the great chronicler of sadism. But then, of course, a desire to smash sacred icons is not why many conservatives joined the battle for the modern Enlightenment in the first place.

The sacred icons of Dutch society were broken in the 1960s, like elsewhere in the Western world, when the churches lost their grip on people’s lives, when government authority was something to challenge, not obey, when sexual taboos were publicly and privately breached, and when - rather in line with the original Enlightenment - people opened their eyes and ears to civilizations outside the West. The rebellions of the 1960s contained irrational, indeed anti-rational and sometimes violent strains, and the fashion for such far-flung exotica as Maoism sometimes turned into a revolt against liberalism and democracy. One by one the religious and political pillars that supported the established order of the Netherlands were cut away. The tolerance of other cultures, often barely understood, that spread with new waves of immigration, was sometimes just that, tolerance, and sometimes sheer indifference, bred by a lack of confidence in values and institutions that needed to be defended.

The conservative call for Enlightenment values is partly a revolt against a revolt. Tolerance has gone too far for many conservatives. They believe, like some former leftists, that multi-culturalism was a mistake; our fundamental values must be reclaimed. Because secularism has gone too far to bring back the authority of the churches, conservatives and neo-conservatives have latched onto the Enlightenment as a badge of national or cultural identity. The Enlightenment, in other words, has become the name for a new conservative order, and its enemies are the aliens, whose values we can’t share.

Perhaps it was a necessary correction. Islamist revolution, like any violent creed, needs to be resisted, and a nation-state, to be viable, must stand for something. Political institutions are not purely mechanical. But an essential part of Enlightenment thinking is that everything, especially claims to “non-negotiable” or “fundamental values”, should be open to criticism. The whole point of liberal democracy, its greatest strength, especially in the Netherlands, is that conflicting faiths, interests and views can only be resolved through negotiation. The only thing that cannot be negotiated is the use of violence.

The murder of Theo van Gogh was committed by one Dutch convert to a revolutionary war, who was probably helped by others. Such revolutionaries in Europe are still few in number. But the murder, like the bomb attacks in Madrid and London, the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, and the worldwide Muslim protests against cartoons of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper, exposed dangerous fractures that run through all European nations. Islam may soon become the majority religion in countries whose churches have been turned more and more into tourist sites, apartment houses, theaters and places of entertainment. The French scholar Olivier Roy is right: Islam is now a European religion. How Europeans, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, cope with this is the question that will decide our future. And what better place to watch the drama unfold than the Netherlands, where freedom came from a revolt against Catholic Spain, where ideals of tolerance and diversity become a badge of national honor, and where political Islam struck its first blow against a man whose deepest conviction was that freedom of speech included the freedom to insult.

Copyright © Ian Burma, 2006.