Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
By Ian Buruma
Atlantic Books

Do not let the title of this excellent book put you off. It is one of the most important books written about the Netherlands in recent years and, therefore, cool.

As Simon Kuper notes, it is essential to be cool in Amsterdam, and nothing could be more hip than sitting in a café engrossed in Buruma.

And you will be, as soon as you start reading this book. Although it tells the extremely disturbing story of the assassination of Theo van Gogh, the provocative film-maker and commentator, by a disaffected Muslim in 2004, Murder in Amsterdam has the pace and suspense of a first-rate thriller.

Buruma is a Dutchman living in New York. Having left the country in 1975, he is able to return and observe with the detachment of the outsider while retaining the powerful insights of the consummate insider.

Many of us have a notion of the Netherlands as the multiculturalists’ dream, a laissez-faire world of marijuana-filled coffee shops and highly sexed young men and women with perfect skin, a place where anything goes.

Buruma explodes that myth, baring the soul of a country urgently re-examining its traditional tolerance and wringing its hands over the failure to integrate its large immigrant community.

Van Gogh, a compulsive publicity-seeker, had no time for what he saw as spineless multiculturalism. He lived to offend. He once wrote that a rival film-maker, who was Jewish, “could only satisfy his wife by wrapping barbed wire around his penis and crying ‘Auschwitz!’ when he came”.

The tragic irony was that for all his warnings about the menace of Islam to Dutch society he failed to recognise the dangers to his own safety.

Buruma picks his way through Dutch pieties and platitudes, writing with sensitivity and understanding about immigration, integration and Islam. Part of the Dutch problem, he argues, derives from postwar guilt, the collaboration with the Nazis and the ensuing massacre of much of the country’s Jewish population.

“To see massive immigration as a problem at all was, in respectable circles, worse than bad taste; it was like questioning the European ideal or racial equality.”

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