When a young Muslim of Moroccan descent slaughtered Theo van Gogh in 2004 as punishment for the Dutch filmmaker's perceived offenses against Islam, it propelled the people of Holland into a state of national soul-searching. How could such a tolerant and generous society could spark such lethal and self-righteous rage? In Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma, a native of the Netherlands who teaches at Bard College, attempts to answer this question, first of all by de-mythologizing both the victim and the killer.
For all his acknowledged talents, van Gogh was a monstrously annoying figure, even to his friends: uncouth, quick to insult and uncanny in pricking his adversary's soft spots. Mohammed Bouyeri, despite his contempt for all things Western, wore Nike sneakers under his black jellaba at his murder trial and had a history of getting high on hashish and flirting with Dutch girls.
Buruma speculates that Holland's zeal for multiculturalism which nurtured the rise of militant Islam within its borders was, in part, a reaction to the country's shameful failure to protect its Jewish citizens against the Nazis during World War II. Welcoming and supporting immigrants became a way of lessening this stain. But the European model of welfare, which demands little from its recipients, ensures neither contentment nor gratitude, Buruma argues. Immigrants appear to fare better in the harsher system of the United States, where there is less temptation to milk the state. The necessity to fend for oneself encourages a kind of rough integration. Rather than using van Gogh's murder as an occasion to pillory Dutch tolerance or radical Muslim intolerance, Buruma probes the psychological world of unassimilated outsiders who are caught between a homeland that couldn't sustain them and a new one that can't fully embrace them. What happened in Holland, he concludes, could happen anywhere as long as men and women feel that death is their only way home. Edward Morris is a writer in Nashville.