Gunshots in a French cornfield and on a Dutch street link two generations of the van Gogh family in tragedy. In 2004, the murder of artist Vincent van Gogh’s great-grandnephew opened debate on the reality of 21st Century Holland. Ian Buruma, now a professor at Bard College, returned to his birthplace to uncover the “why” of the crime. The book, “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance” resulted from his visit. Examination of Mohammed Bouyeri’s criminal act led Buruma to the larger picture, the phenomenon of Muslims residing in the Netherlands. Professor Buruma studied the difficulties facing the Netherlands due to retention of guest workers from Turkey and Morocco. Interviews, astute observation and insight into his Dutch background helped the author piece together the sociological and psychological conflicts currently experienced. Adaptation to secular society from a religious tradition proves the main roadblock to assimilation of immigrants. The historic Dutch mindset plays a part. The author examines the Netherlands’ past self-image as a multicultural haven and its present identity crisis. Focus shifts from the national consciousness to character studies of van Gogh and others, Muslim and non-Muslim. Self-mocking, jealous, generous, curious and immature; van Gogh appears a complex individual. Buruma stresses how the victim provoked the public through his discourse and actions. Van Gogh mixed politics and provocation via his association with controversial politicians, Pim Fortuyn and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The author believes that “Submission,” a film collaboration between van Gogh and Hirsi Ali led to Bouyeri’s act of murder.
Buruma does not provide a simple solution for Dutch societal problems. He narrows the issue to the integration of Muslims born in the Netherlands into the secular environment. Strict traditions will not change, according to the author, and he theorizes that the potential violence of immigrants depends upon whether orthodox Muslims can be accepted as Europeans by their non-Muslim neighbors.