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Author Discusses New Book About Radical Islam in the Netherlands

October 23, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: On November 2, 2004, a Dutch filmmaker named Theo van Gogh was murdered as he rode his bicycle on an Amsterdam street. The brutal killing — van Gogh was shot numerous times and then cut and stabbed with a machete — was carried out by 26-year-old Mohammed Bouyeri, Dutch-born of Moroccan heritage.

It was a horrific response to a film called “Submission,” which focused on violence against women in Islamic societies. Van Gogh made the film with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Muslim who had moved to the Netherlands and become a vocal critic of what she saw as Islam’s intolerance.

Ian Buruma, a writer then living in London, returned to his native country to explore the people and tensions that led to this event. The result is a new book, “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.” Ian Buruma teaches journalism at Bard College in New York.

And welcome to you.

I gather that, when you went back to your homeland, you found a very different place than the one you had left?

IAN BURUMA, Author: Yes. I mean, I left in 1975, and cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam didn’t look so different because they were always very mixed populations. It’s in smaller towns in Holland that you really see how much has changed. And that when you see 20 percent or 30 percent of the small provincial town of foreign and usually Muslim origin, that’s a very different cityscape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Theo van Gogh was a true provocateur, correct? He went out of his way to insult Muslims, but he insulted everyone.

IAN BURUMA: He insulted everyone indiscriminately. He was very democratic in his hatreds. But he cared about one thing, which was hypocrisy. And he didn’t like religion much, either. And he thought that, by being deliberately provocative, deliberately rude, even grossly offensive was a way to sort of bring honesty into the conversation.

Tolerance in a changing society

JEFFREY BROWN: His killer, Mohammad Bouyeri, born in the Netherlands. Tell us, how did he become a killer?

IAN BURUMA: Well, he became a killer like so many young men you read about in Joseph Conrad novels. I mean, he was confused about his identity, where he fitted in society, the meaning of life, so on and so forth, felt humiliated -- these are problems that, of course, afflict the second-generation immigrants, perhaps more than most people -- and found a ready-made cause in this very violent, revolutionary form of Islam that's imported from the Middle East and gives confused young men like him a cause to die for and to kill for, which is, of course, lethal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the Dutch famously have a reputation as tolerant. The Netherlands is a multicultural land. And yet you show that there are many layers to this history, that there is, of course, a deep traditional culture there, as well.

IAN BURUMA: Yes, I think, unlike France and the United States, which have a sense of nationhood based on a constitution, on a republican ideal, a lot of European countries have a more cultural sense of who they are. They're a bit like clubs, with their private codes and the members sort of know the unspoken rules.

And this makes it hard for outsiders to feel that they fit in, even though they don't get stoned, I mean stones thrown at their heads in the street. It's hard for them to feel that they're members of the club.

JEFFREY BROWN: So here you have a society that has been changing over the last decades, different populations moving in. How has it worked or how has it not worked?

IAN BURUMA: Hard to tell. I think it's worked better than more pessimistic critics say today. I think quite a lot of people have integrated. It's certainly not impossible to be a well-integrated Muslim Dutchman or Frenchman or Brit.

But there is this hard core of young people who are vulnerable to these violent utopian ideals. Now, the danger to society is if too many people around them start sympathizing with this. And this is why I argue that we have to be very careful not to alienate the majority of Muslims so that they can isolate this violent core.

Violence revolutionary strain

JEFFREY BROWN: And you're looking at all of those events leading up to the murder that you document. Since the murder happened, what's been the impact on the kind of tensions you're talking about?

IAN BURUMA: Well, it wasn't as violent as people had predicted. People really were fearful of pogroms, and Muslims in particular were worried that they'd be attacked in the streets and so on. There was sporadic violence, but mostly by just gangs of kids. But there wasn't much of that. It's calmed down.

But there is a mood in the country now of hostility. And 51 percent of the Dutch population, according to polls, has an unfavorable view of Muslims, which is the highest in Western Europe. The next one down is Germany with 47 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we're seeing this kind of clash, this tension all over Europe. Do you see it as a clash of religions, or of cultures, or of what?

IAN BURUMA: Well, I don't see it in terms of clash of civilizations. And since most Muslims are law-abiding and peaceful, I don't think it's a question of Christendom versus Islam, either. And in any case, most societies are secular.

I think what it is, it's a violent revolutionary strain of Islam which began in the Middle East and, through the Internet and so on, is reaching into the heart of Europe. And this is a huge problem.

And I don't think the way to combat it is to be very distrustful of Islam in general or to have rules that sort of outlaw headscarves and that kind of thing. I think we have to try and encourage the Muslim community itself to isolate these people.


JEFFREY BROWN: Your subtitle though is "The Limits of Tolerance." How do you define that? What are the limits of tolerance?

IAN BURUMA: Well, the limits -- of course, it has a double meaning. Theo van Gogh himself thought that anything -- you should be able to say anything in public in a free country, no matter how offensive. He felt you had the right to offend.

Now, obviously, there are limits, because he got killed, which is deplorable and one shouldn't get killed. At the same time, I think, without outlawing offensive language and that kind of thing sort of by in legal means, which I think is not a good thing, I think socially it might be better if we did have a certain discretion in how we treat others and other religions and so on.

And I don't think that freedom of speech is absolute. I mean, legally it might be absolute. I don't think in practice it is. I think that we should show certain a reticence when it comes to other people's habits and other people's religions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you mentioned the headscarf case in France. I mean, the last year has seen the Danish cartoons. We had the pope speech recently. We had the recent -- the Berlin opera which got canceled. Do you see this persisting, getting worse?

IAN BURUMA: It could either lead to a backlash or, indeed, there will be -- the intimidation can work. And intimidation often does work, and people could start getting more fearful, but becoming more fearful also leads to greater resentment. So I think the freedom of speech in that sense really needs to be protected against those who are intolerant.

The future of extremism

JEFFREY BROWN: At the end of the book, you write, "This story is not over. What happened in this small corner of northwestern Europe could happen anywhere as long as young men and women feel that death is their only way home." That sounds rather bleak, actually.

IAN BURUMA: Well, it's bleak in the sense that we do have to contend with this revolutionary movement inside Islam and that that's not going to go away fast. And we have to get used to it and find all means to protect ourselves against it.

But it's not necessarily -- my pessimism is not necessarily so bad that I think that the Muslims cannot become integrated European citizens; I think they can, and I think many are.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "Murder in Amsterdam." Ian Buruma, thank you.

IAN BURUMA: Thank you.