Saturday, November 8, 2008

Testing Societal Tolerance: "Murder In Amsterdam" By Ian Buruma

Murder In Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and The Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma, Penguin, 2006. Above is a presentation by Ian Buruma about his book at the Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC.

On November 2, 2004, Theo van Gogh, controversial filmmaker and relative of painter Vincent Van Gogh, was brutally murdered on an Amsterdam sidewalk by Mohammed Bouyeri. The  killer was offended by the film "Submission," a critical depiction of women under Islam written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken opponent of political Islam who was also threatened. This shocking event tested the attitudes of the Dutch, previously known for their tolerance, as well as the country's immigrant Muslims.

Considering a variety of perspectives, Buruma examines the career of right-wing, anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn, murdered by a fellow Dutchman, who found the Dutch "far too tolerant of intolerance." He also speaks to Paul Scheffer, a former progressive journalist who turned against multiculturalism, stating that the cultural gap was too great between the Dutch natives and bearded Moroccans in a street market near his home. 

Buruma treats Islamic fundamentalist youth like Bouyeri with insight. Caught between their immigrant village culture and the temptations and rejections of modern, cosmopolitan Western society and embarrassed by fathers who have trouble coping with Dutch life, they retreat into a closed world of the like-minded, entertaining ideas of destruction and martyrdom.

Buruma also speaks to those who don't necessarily subscribe to an inevitable clash of civilizations. Amsterdam councillor Ahmed Aboutaleb promotes the integration of his fellow Muslims and speaks out against violent religious views. For this Aboutaleb is labeled a collaborator and heretic by the fundamendalists, but he bravely pleads his case, to the point of taking schoolchildren to visit Auschwitz on National Remembrance Day and demonstrating against Theo Van Gogh's murder.

There's also Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam, whose mother experienced the Nazi occupation as a Jew. Cohen stressed, in a famous 2002 lecture, the importance of mutual respect and tolerance for opinions and habits that Westerners neither share nor approve. He also called for the integration of Muslims through their faith itself, "the only anchor they have when they enter Dutch society." 

Buruma gives incisive support to the mayor's thesis and leaves the reader with a point of view that calls for reconciliation instead of conflict: "It is precisely to avoid this notion of Kulturkampf, or 'clash of civilizations,' that Cohen wants to reach an accommodation with the Muslims in this city... Attacking religion cannot be the answer, for the real threat to a mixed society will come when the mainstream of non-revolutionary Muslims has lost all hope of feeling at home."

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