A Dutch Canary in the Multicultural Coalmine?


One paragraph stands out among many insightful passages in Ian Buruma’s new

Murder in Amsterdam, a meditation on the causes and meanings of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s 2004 murder:

By the middle of the twentieth century… the Netherlands had pretty much caught up with the world, and since then things often happened earlier than elsewhere: tolerance of recreational drugs and pornography; acceptance of gay rights, multiculturalism, euthanasia, and so on. This, too, led to an air of satisfaction, even smugness, a self-congratulatory notion of living in the finest, freest, most progressive, most decent, most perfectly evolved playground of multicultural utopianism.

Ian Buruma,

Murder in Amsterdam

And what better place for this flourishing multicultural paradise than the tolerant Netherlands of the Church-baiting Erasmus and the Portuguese-Jewish rationalist Spinoza? So is it too simplistic — too naive — to ask: what went wrong? Or, put another way: what exactly happened when the Dutch version of the Enlightenment dream of tolerant multiculturalism collided not just with a marginalized and radicalized homegrown Islam but with an increasingly vocal right-wing populism? It was all there in the different but not unrelated murders of Van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn.

Ignoring the Dutch particulars — the fallout of the Dutch maritime empire, the aftershocks of post-colonial breakup, or the fact that, as Buruma notes wrily, both Van Gogh’s and Fortuyn’s murderers arrived by bicycle — can we look at the Netherlands now and see ourselves in five years, or ten, or two? If so, what are the lessons we should draw? And, while we’re asking naive questions, is there any way to bring back that sense of multicultural utopianism, a kind everyone can somehow believe in?

Ian Buruma

Professor of Human Rights and Journalism, Bard College

Author, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

Jacob Vossestein

Intercultural trainer

Author, Dealing with the Dutch

Slimane el Hasnaoui

Moroccan-Dutch economist

Extra Credit Reading
Theo Van Gogh, Theo Van Gogh, wikipedia.org, October 4, 2006.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, wikipedia.org, October 5, 2006.

Pim Fortuyn, Pim Fortuyn wikipedia.org, October 3, 2006.

Geoff Coupe, Murder in Amsterdam, Part II, Geoff Coupe’s Blog, October 5, 2006: “In a perverse parallel, it seems to me that Bouyeri has retreated into his world of religious zealotry from which he will never escape. He sits in his prison cell surrounded by his holy books and continues to dream his revolutionary fantasies. I think we’ve lost him. But we cannot afford to lose more like him.”

Cordula Meyer and Caroline Schmidt, Europeans have stopped defending their values, Der Spiegel, October 2, 2006: “It means that we share the same rules and values, and are still nevertheless different. Islam doesn’t have this idea. And Islam also has no tradition of tolerance.”

Timothy Garton Ash, Islam in Europe, New York Times Book Review, October 5, 2006: “Such suicide killers are obviously not representative of the great majority of Muslims living peacefully in Europe; but they are, without question, extreme and exceptional symptoms of a much broader alienation of the children of Muslim immigrants to Europe. Their sickness of mind and heart reveals, in an extreme form, the pathology of the Inbetween People.”

The Economist, Look Out Europe, They Say, The Economist, June 22, 2006: “Yet, for Europe’s angriest Muslims, their host countries’ gravest sin lies precisely in their alignment with America–both as partners in the global capitalist system and as supporters, in varying degrees, of American foreign policy. So the suggestion that America may have something to teach Europe about how to make Muslims feel more comfortable (and therefore less extreme) looks at first sight rather strange.”

Michael van der Galien The Intergration Debate in the Netherlands, The Moderate Voice, October 4, 2006: “Muslim immigrants are more than welcome, but they will have to adapt to our way of life. They will have to embrace our values: even when they collide with the values of the Koran.”

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