The Collision With Islam

It was a dreary morning in Amsterdam — the date was Nov. 4, 2004 — when 26-year-old Mohammas Bouyeri, a Moroccan Dutchman wearing a gray raincoat and prayer hat, shot and killed Theo van Gogh, the great-grandnephew of the famous painter, while the filmmaker was riding his bicycle. Witnesses, shocked by this random-seeming burst of violence, said that they were perhaps most unnerved by the coolness of the young assassin's manner as he went about his various tasks.

Ian Buruma, one of the best writers and thinkers on the scene, describes the attack with meticulous care in the opening passage of his newest book Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance:

"[Bouyeri] 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."

Before he took leave of his victim, Bouyeri kicked the corpse several times, then ambled away, not hurrying in the least, according to Buruma — "as though he had done nothing more dramatic than fillet a fish."

The killer made no serious attempt to escape. As he walked he reloaded his gun, while a woman walking by shouted at him, "You can't do that!"

"Yes, I can," Bouyeri told her, before he strolled over to a nearby park. By then, several police cars had arrived on the scene. "Now you know what you people can expect in the future," the killer said before entering into a shootout with police. One shot hit an officer with a bulletproof vest; another caught a passerby in the leg. Eventually, Bouyeri took a bullet in his leg, and was overwhelmed by the police.

This was not how he'd wanted things to go. He'd hoped to die as a martyr to his faith, Buruma notes, as the young man made clear in later statements and stated in the letter he'd implanted in van Gogh's chest.

The contents of that notorious letter were not released for several days. It proved to be a rambling diatribe, written in Dutch with a sprinkling of Arab phrases, that called for a holy war against the infidels, and the deaths of certain people mentioned by name, says Buruma.

"The tone was that of a death cult, composed in a language dripping with the imaginary blood of infidels and holy martyrs," continues the author. "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."

This "open letter" was not in fact addressed to van Gogh, notes Buruma, but to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch politician, who had made a short film with van Gogh called Submission, depicting Islamic abuse of women "by projecting quotations from the Koran onto the naked bodies of several young women."

'A Prominent Critic'

This film was first shown as part of a TV show, during which Dutch celebrities were asked to select scenes from their favorite movies or TV programs. Hirsi Ali chose Submission.

Buruma says that choosing one's own work was unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, but Hirsi Ali (who's just published a book called Infidel that's become a best-seller, and that tells the story of her life and the subsequent death threats she's received) is not your run-of-the-mill celebrity.

The author states that in the year before van Gogh's murder, she had already become "the most prominent critic of Islam in the Netherlands, speaking out in meetings with Muslim women, at party conferences, and on talk shows, repeating her message, over and over, that the Koran itself was the source of violent abuse."

A "delicate African beauty," as the author describes her, Hirsi Ali had come to the public's attention through "the eloquence and conviction of her public warnings against a religion which already had a sinister reputation." Hers was a unsettling message given to a society that usually enjoyed preaching multiculturalism and tolerance.

Bouyeri's "open letter" was addressed to Hirsi Ali, as someone who had rebelled against the religion of her childhood and had then become a willing tool of "Zionists and Crusaders." Bouyeri called her any number of other names: a "soldier of evil" and a "liar" who would "smash herself to pieces on Islam."

"She would be destroyed, along with the United States, Europe and Holland," writes Buruma. "For death would 'separate Truth from lies, and Islam would be 'victorious through the blood of martyrs.' "

But though Hirsi Ali was perhaps the most prominent target of Bouyeri's "holy rage," she was far from the only one. Her "masters" were identified as "a Jewish cabal" that ruled the Netherlands. "The cabal," notes Buruma, "included the mayor of Amsterdam, Joe 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 puts it). In a twist of awful irony, Cohen had also been attacked 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 "cabal" was Jozua van Aartsen, then leader of the conservative VVD, People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, which Hirsi Ali had joined as a member of parliament. The fact that he wasn't Jewish had no bearing on the matter. "In the holy war against 'Zionists and Crusaders,' ancestry counts for less than association," writes Buruma.

The author continues: "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 destroy it. We are their enemy, something we have not seen since 1940.' "

Mosques and Muslim schools began to be torched, and TV news announcers proclaimed that the country was "burning," which was not true, Buruma says. The "civil war" that some predicted did not occur. The torching had been done by teens looking for troubles. Most of the Dutch people kept their cool. But the constant "chatter" of politicos, journalists, TV pundits and editorialists did create a "feverish atmosphere" in the wake of van Gogh's murder.

It was at this time that Buruma, who is Jewish, decided to return to Holland, the place of his birth in 1951 and where he had lived until 1975, to investigate this story. His book is structured in ripples, like a pebble thrown into a pool. The stone is van Gogh's savage murder; the ripples are all the individuals mentioned above — even the murdered man, whom the author knew. In fact, Buruma had been interviewed by van Gogh on his highly controversial TV program, "A Friendly Conversation."

The significant contribution that Murder in Amsterdam makes to this volatile and timely issue is the author's honesty. We always know where he stands; his subtitle makes it clear that there are limits to tolerance, and something must be done about the clash between Islam and Europe. But his cast of characters, even when they are espousing all the correct virtues, are not always an endearing group of people, especially the murder victim.

Van Gogh was a confrontational, bullying, often ugly man, and Buruma doesn't spare any of the unflattering details (this is true of all of his portraits). Not that he blames the TV personality for his death; he is too smart for that. But he shows how all of the elements played out and possibly why it occurred.

He ends his important, well researched and reported book by returning to the murderer, providing a despairing snapshot of a young man lost in the wilds of Holland's permissiveness. Buruma hardly excuses Bouyeri; like all the other people he portrays here, he simply tries to understand him.


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