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Authors: Ian Buruma

Murder in Amsterdam

BOOK: Murder in Amsterdam
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is currently Luce Professor at Bard College, New York. His previous books include
Voltaire's Coconuts, The Missionary and the Libertine, The Wages of Guilt, Inventing Japan, God's Dust
Bad Elements
. His most recent book,
, was published by Atlantic Books in 2004.


‘This is the book Ian Buruma was born to write… Buruma understands his characters' motives better than they do… All being well, this will be the only book he ever has to write about his native land.' Simon Kuper,
Financial Times

‘Illuminating… Such a nuanced exploration stands in rebuke to much of the lazy polemic written about European Muslims today.' Natasha Walter,

‘Absorbing and revealing… An especially vital book for British readers now.' Boyd Tonkin,

‘Diligently researched… This is a fine and balanced book… A quiet warning that this horror could happen anywhere.' Bryan Appleyard,
Sunday Times

‘A thoughtful book on the assassination of controversialist film-maker Theo van Gogh.
Murder in Amsterdam
takes us into the disoriented, hate-filled lives of the Moroccan and Turkish immigrant community, exploding the niceties of laissez-faire multiculturalism.' Justin Marozzi,
Evening Standard
Books of the Year

‘As well as showing there is a lot more to Holland than tulips and canals, [Buruma] elegantly dissects Europe's attempts to cope with the new terrorism.' Nick Cohen,
Evening Standard
Books of the Year

‘Bleak scenarios are tempered with wry observations… An admirably lucid stance in a hysterical climate.' Arwa Haider,

‘A little wonder of fine, transparent, reflective reporting – the best kind of writing.' John Lloyd,
Glasgow Herald

‘A wonderfully readable and provocative investigation of the problem, weaving through it the stories of a small group of characters who are central to the murder.' Bill McSweeney,
Irish Times

‘A revealing portrait of the country as it now is, a portrait far removed from more traditional images… Buruma's account of Fortuyn is one of the best available in English.' Peter Mair,
London Review of Books

‘[Buruma's] reporting can't be faulted; he writes […] elegantly, and he gives a good and thought-provoking sense of the complexity of the cross-currents that inform this particular, and particularly strange, historical moment.' Sam Leith,

‘Ian Buruma's splendid new book […] produces a persuasive analysis of the rise of radical Islam in the Netherlands.'

‘If you don't read anything else before the end of the year, read Ian Buruma's thoughtful, provocative essay on what happened when Theo van Gogh, an outrageous, often offensive film-maker, was murdered in Amsterdam by a young Morroccan Dutchman… This is compelling stuff. Don't miss it.' Julia Neuberger,
Jewish Chronicle

‘Genius… Buruma infiltrates the narcissistic milieu of van Gogh and Ali and navigates the world of Bouyeri brilliantly… But it is on the complexities and contradictions of Dutch society that Buruma is best, the combination of judgment and guilt, prudishness and prurience.' Robert Fox,
The First Post

‘A shrewd, subtly argued inquiry into the tensions and resentments underlying two of the most shocking events in the recent history of the Netherlands… Mr. Buruma manages to pick up on nuances and historical threads that other writers might easily overlook [and] with great finesse, explores the sense of displacement and cultural alienation of […] young Muslim men drawn to Islamic fundamentalism.' William Grimes,
New York Times

‘Buruma addresses questions of political philosophy, moral accountability and mass psychology in the most rigorous possible way: journalistically.' Christopher Caldwell,
International Herald Tribune

First published in the United States of America in 2006 by
The Penguin Press, a member of PenguinGroup (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA.

First published in Great Britain in hardback in 2006
by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.

This edition published in Great Britain in 2014
by Atlantic Books Ltd.

Copyright © Ian Buruma 2006

The moral right of Ian Buruma to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior permission both of the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders. The publishers will be pleased to make goodany omissions or rectify any mistakes brought to their attention at the earliest opportunity.

eISBN 9781782395652

Atlantic Books Ltd.
Ormond House
26–27 Boswell Street
London WC1N 3JZ

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library.

For Hanca

Holy War in Amsterdam


Ton (48), eyewitness to the murder of Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004: “I heard Theo van Gogh beg for mercy. ‘Don't do it! Don't do it!' he cried. I saw him fall onto the bicycle path. His killer was so calm. That really shocked me. How you can murder a person in such cold blood, right there in the street?

“I had sleepless nights for weeks…. Every night I see Theo van Gogh fall and Mohammed B. quietly finishing his job…. Since then I trust very few people. Mohammed B. could be one's neighbor. If I say ‘fucking nigger' to a Surinamese, I'm called a racist, even though he can call me a whitey. You can no longer say what you think these days. No, we've become foreigners in our own country.”

, JULY 30, 2005

t was the coolness of his manner, the composure of a person who knew precisely what he was doing, that struck those who saw Mohammed Bouyeri, a twenty-six-year-old Moroccan-Dutchman in a gray raincoat and prayer hat, blast the filmmaker Theo van Gogh off his bicycle on a dreary morning in Amsterdam. He shot him calmly in the stomach, and after the victim had staggered to the other side of the street, shot him several more times, pulled out a curved machete, and cut his throat—“as though slashing a tire,” according to one witness.

Leaving the machete planted firmly in Van Gogh's chest, he then pulled a smaller knife from a bag, scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded the letter neatly, and pinned it to the body with this second knife.

Van Gogh, a short fat man with blond curls, was dressed in his usual T-shirt and suspenders. Most people in Holland who watch TV or read the papers would have been familiar with this ubiquitous figure, known less for his films than for his provocative statements on radio and television, in newspaper and Internet columns, and in various courts of law, about everything from the alleged exploitation of the Holocaust by Jewish celebrities to the dangerous presence of a Muslim “fifth column” operating in Dutch society. He lay on his back, his hands stretched above his head, two knives sticking out from his chest, slaughtered like a sacrificial animal.
Bouyeri gave the corpse a few hard kicks and walked away, without hurry, easy as could be, as though he had done nothing more dramatic than fillet a fish.

Still calm, he made no serious attempt to escape. While he reloaded his gun, a woman who happened by screamed: “You can't do that!” “Yes, I can,” Bouyeri replied, before strolling into a nearby park with several patrol cars rushing to the scene, “and now you know what you people can expect in the future.” A shootout began. One bullet struck a policeman in his bulletproof vest. Another hit a passer-by in the leg. But then Bouyeri caught a police bullet in his own leg and was arrested. This was not part of the plan. Bouyeri had wanted to die as a martyr to his faith. We know this from statements he made later, and from the letter on Van Gogh's chest.

The content of Bouyeri's letter was not released to the public for several days. Perhaps it was thought to be too shocking, and likely to provoke further violence. It was in fact a long rambling tract, written in Dutch with a few quotations in Arabic, calling for a holy war against the unbelievers, and the deaths of a number of people mentioned by name. The tone was that of a death cult, composed in a language dripping with the imaginary blood of infidels and holy martyrs. The Dutch is correct but stilted, evidence of the author's lack of literary skill perhaps, but also of several layers of awkward translation. Much of Bouyeri's knowledge of
radical Islamist rhetoric came from English translations of Arabic texts downloaded from the Internet.

The manner of Van Gogh's murder, too, appears to have been inspired by imagery shooting around the world on websites. A CD-ROM disk was found in Bouyeri's apartment with video film of more than twenty-three killings of “the enemies of Allah,” including the American reporter Daniel Pearl. These were taken from a Saudi website edited in London. Apart from the detailed images of men of various nationalities being beheaded, the CD contained pictures of a struggling man slowly having his head sawed off, taken from a Dutch porno site.

Bouyeri's “open letter” was not actually addressed to Theo van Gogh himself, but to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somaliborn Dutch politician, who had made a short film with Van Gogh, entitled
dramatizing what she saw as Islamic abuse of women by projecting quotations from the Koran onto the naked bodies of several young women. The film was first shown in a television program in which Dutch celebrities are asked to select scenes from their favorite films or television shows. Hirsi Ali chose
. Selecting one's own work was unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, but Hirsi Ali was not a run-of-the-mill celebrity. In the year before Van Gogh's murder she had become the most prominent critic of Islam in the Netherlands, speaking out in meetings with Muslim women, at party conferences, and on TV
talk shows, repeating her message, over and over, that the Koran itself was the source of violent abuse. A delicate African beauty, Hirsi Ali had caught the public imagination by the eloquence and conviction of her public warnings against a religion which already had a sinister reputation. Here was a Muslim, or ex-Muslim, from Africa, telling Europeans that Islam was a serious threat. This was a disturbing message in a society used to public figures preaching multicultural tolerance, but it was also something many people wished to hear, some of the same people who would later turn against her.

Bouyeri's letter was addressed to Hirsi Ali, as a heretic who had rebelled against her childhood faith and become a willing tool of “Zionists and Crusaders.” She was called a “soldier of evil” who had “turned her back on the Truth.” She was “a liar” who would “smash herself to pieces on Islam.” She would be destroyed, along with the United States, Europe, and Holland. For death would “separate Truth from lies,” and Islam would be “victorious through the blood of martyrs.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the most prominent target of this holy rage, but she was not the only one. Her “masters” were described in the letter as a Jewish cabal that ruled the Netherlands. This cabal included the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, a secular man who actually tried his best to find common ground with the Muslim communities in his city (“holding things together,” as he put it). In a twist of awful
irony, Cohen had also been attacked quite viciously by Theo van Gogh, among others, as an appeaser of Islamic extremism.

The shadow of World War II, the only war to reach the Dutch homeland since Napoleon's invasion, is never far from any Dutch crisis. Van Gogh, with his unfailing instinct for the low blow, compared Cohen to a collaborationist mayor under Nazi occupation. Still, in Bouyeri's jihad, Cohen would have to be annihilated. Another member of the alleged cabal was Jozua van Aartsen, then leader of the conservative VVD,
People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, which Hirsi Ali had recently joined as a member of parliament. The fact that he wasn't Jewish at all was of course irrelevant. In the holy war against “Zionists and Crusaders,” ancestry counts for less than association.

Van Aartsen, too, invoked the last war. “These people,” he wrote in the
NRC Handelsblad,
the most august of the national newspapers, “don't wish to change our society, they want to
it. We are their enemy, something we have not seen since 1940.” His party colleague, the finance minister, Gerrit Zalm, a personal friend of Van Gogh's, declared that “we” were “at war” with the terrorists, and extra measures would be taken “on all fronts.” Matt Herben, leader of the populist LPF
party, founded by the late Pim Fortuyn,
saw Islamic and Western civilizations at war on Dutch soil. Society, he said, “is being threatened by extremists who spit on our culture. They don't even speak our language and walk around in funny dresses. They are a fifth column. Theo said this better than anyone.”

First it was a mosque in Huizen—three men tried to torch it with turpentine and gasoline. Then a mosque in Rotterdam was targeted, though only the door got scorched. There was another arson attempt at a mosque in Groningen. And in Eindhoven a bomb exploded in an Islamic school. Jan Peter Balkenende, the prime minister, quickly announced that “we” were not exactly at war; Holland was just “doing battle” against “radicalism.” Three Christian churches were attacked, in Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Amersfoort. Another Muslim school, in Uden, a small town in the south, was set on fire. Someone had written “Theo R.I.P.” on the wall. “The country is burning,” said the announcer on the television news.

In fact, the country wasn't burning at all. The arsonists in Uden were a bunch of teenagers looking for kicks. The “civil war” that some feared, the pogroms on Muslim areas, the retaliations by newly recruited jihadis, none of this actually happened. Most people kept their cool. But the constant chatter of politicians, newspaper columnists, television pundits, headline writers, and editorialists in the popular
press produced a feverish atmosphere in which the smallest incident, the slightest faux pas, would spark endless rounds of overheated commentary.

An orthodox imam from Tilburg refused to shake the hand of Rita Verdonk, minister for the integration of minorities. With all respect, the Syrian-born cleric said in halting Dutch, she was a woman, and his religion forbade physical contact with strange women. “But surely we are equals,” replied Verdonk a little peevishly, unsure what to do with her outstretched hand. She was right, they were equals, but equality may not have been the point. The imam's refusal, maladroit no doubt, but not of huge significance, made the front page of every major newspaper. The sturdy figure of Rita Verdonk facing the bearded imam became a prime symbol of the Dutch crisis, of the collapse of multiculturalism, the end of a sweet dream of tolerance and light in the most progressive little enclave of Europe.


Forty Moroccan, Dutch, political, religious, and homosexual organizations from Amsterdam distributed posters with the slogan: “We won't take this.” People are invited to sign a manifesto on the website

NOVEMBER 16, 2004

t was at this point that I decided to spend some time in the Netherlands, where I was born in 1951 and had lived until 1975. I had known Van Gogh slightly. We had mutual friends and did the odd radio show together. He invited me to be on his TV talk show, called
A Friendly Conversation,
which, in fact, it was. Not being a member of Amsterdam café society or the local literary scene, I had escaped the lash of his often venomous polemics. His behavior to me was invariably polite, even though his loud, high-pitched voice, always striving to be heard, could be wearisome.

I arrived with an American magazine assignment in time for Verdonk's attempted handshake, but too late for the memorial party organized by “the Friends of Theo” according to the precise specifications of Van Gogh himself, drawn up while planning a trip to New York a few months earlier (he suffered from a fear of flying). There was a rock band and there were cabaret acts. Pretty cigarette girls in miniskirts plied their wares, as in a prewar movie theater. Female guests wore strings of pearls and twinsets, a style that Theo had found a turn-on. Since one of Theo's favorite terms for Muslims was “goat fuckers,” well-known comedians made jokes about fucking goats, and two stuffed goats stood on a makeshift stage, ready for “those who might feel the urge.” A large wooden coffin, supposedly containing Theo's corpse, was placed on a revolving platform flanked by magnum bottles
of champagne, and large phallic cacti, the trademark of his television chat show. One Friend of Theo, present at this wake for a more frivolous age, predicted to me that if the Muslim radicals weren't crushed soon, there would be a civil war in Holland.

There was something unhinged about the Netherlands in the winter of 2004, and I wanted to understand it better. Hysteria, after all, is the last thing people associate with a country that is usually described by lazy foreign journalists as “phlegmatic.” I had always known this to be a caricature, but had still found it too placid for my taste, too reassuringly dull. This, clearly, was no longer the case. Something had changed dramatically in the country of my birth.

One of the first things I read after arriving in Amsterdam was an essay by the great Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga, written in 1934, another time of crisis, when fascism and Nazism were looming close to the Dutch borders. But extremism would not seduce the Dutch, he said, and even if it did, against all the odds, it would surely be a “moderate extremism.” Even though Holland was not immune to the dangers of modern propaganda and the crumbling of faith in democratic institutions, the stolid Dutch burghers were simply not given to excesses. As Huizinga saw it, the “mental basis” for collective illusions was a “political sense of inferiority” grounded in centuries of failure and oppression, and a deeply felt loss of ancient glory. Exasperated nationalism
is the usual result, filled with a desire for revenge. Such was not the case in the Netherlands, for “as a nation and a state we are after all
and it is our duty to remain so.”

BOOK: Murder in Amsterdam
6.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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