Foto: Eri Hotta
Not dull anymore
1 October 2006 – After filmmaker Theo van Gogh had been murdered
in Amsterdam, writer Ian Buruma returned to the Netherlands to describe
what was going on in our country. He had always found the Netherlands
‘reassuringly dull’, but that has changed.
In this article:
- The Dutch
are smug and have an exclusionist ‘club mentality’
- After the
Rushdie Affair, progressive baby boomers felt betrayed by Muslims
welfare state provisions, integration will operate more smoothly,
In 2005 Twan Huys, correspondent for the current affairs programme
NOVA, reported on militias that hunt down illegal Mexicans in Arizona.
“Especially in the Netherlands, surely you know exactly what
we are talking about?” he was told. Huys was perplexed: in
this remote corner people apparently knew exactly what had happened
in the Linnaeusstraat in Amsterdam six months earlier.
The example illustrates how much of an impact the murder of filmmaker
Theo van Gogh has made. A few days after the murder, the New York
Times devoted an editorial to the issue: “Something sad and
terrible is happening in the Netherlands, long one of Europe’s
most tolerant, decent and multicultural societies”.
Huys wrote a book about his work as a correspondent in New York.
Most of it consists of entertaining but somewhat superficial anecdotes:
about the question he should not have asked Clinton, about how he
beat the international media at interviewing Lynndie England (the
soldier who featured in the humiliating photographs of prisoners
at the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison).
More depth is provided by Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam.
Buruma is well-positioned to analyse what is going on in the Netherlands:
on the one hand, he is a foreigner, who has lived most of his life
in Japan, Hong Kong, London and New York. On the other hand, he
has his roots in the Netherlands, and especially in higher circles.
Like Theo van Gogh, he grew up in the plush city of Wassenaar, where
he played in the same sandpit as later intellectual Herman Philipse.
Partly thanks to his background, Buruma got access to many lead
players in today’s Multicultural Drama: Ahmed Aboutaleb, Frits
Bolkestein, Job Cohen, Afshin Ellian, Geert Mak, Ayaan Hirsi Ali,
Theodor Holman, Max Pam, Herman Philipse, Paul Scheffer, Bart Jan
Spruyt, Gijs van de Westelaken and many more.
Buruma writes that the Netherlands used to be ‘too placid
for my taste, too reassuringly dull’. This dullness was accompanied
by ‘an air of satisfaction, even smugness’, expressed
in the notion of the Netherlands as a moral guide for the rest of
the world. The Germans are the ideal enemy. By portraying them as
authoritarian, we try to present ourselves as open and tolerant.
Another aspect of this mentality is a condescending attitude towards
the less fortunate. Until recently, the country was ruled by “ladies
and gentlemen in sober suits who regarded it as their God-given
duty to take care of the unfortunate, the sick, the asylum-seekers
from abroad, and the guest workers”.
When this smugness is challenged, panic sets in and people feel
wronged. First there was the Rushdie Affair. Later, other incidents
followed, such as the attacks of 11 September. Many left-leaning
baby boomers were incensed: we have always been so good to them
and now look what they are doing! There was a shift “from
a position of automatic, almost dogmatic advocacy of multicultural
tolerance to an anxious rejection of Islam in public life”.
The fact that progressive baby boomers suddenly turned into a reactionary
vanguard is not specifically Dutch: many American neocons have once
started out as liberals. What does seem to be specifically Dutch
is the tendency to immediately co-opt social changes – an
aspect, by the way, that Buruma does not discuss at length.
The historian James Kennedy described in Nieuw Babylon in aanbouw
how this worked in the 1960s. Student protests took the elites by
surprise. They panicked and tried to incorporate the new generation
in the political system. The opinions of the youth movement were
swiftly adopted, changing the Netherlands from a conservative country
into an icon of progressiveness.
The same pattern occurred in 2002, when Pim Fortuyn’s right-wing
populism proved popular. Again, elites were taken by surprise and
again they responded by swiftly co-opting the protest. The LPF was
included in the government and political parties stumbled over each
other adopting populist ideas on crime and foreigners.
A similar eager co-optation did not take place in the Netherlands
after the Rushdie Affair. Certainly, Islamic leaders were invited
to a meeting with the Minister of the Interior, but apart from that
not much happened. A possible explanation is that ethnic minorities
had already been co-opted: their cultural associations received
subsidies and they had their own consultative bodies.
Partly as a result of this co-optation, the Netherlands remained
relatively quiet during the Rushdie Affair. The anger among Muslims
did not surface until later. Buruma writes that there had always
been indifference among low-educated Moroccans, but the well-educated
used to be optimistic and ambitious. They were convinced that the
Netherlands was the country where they belonged and where their
After 11 September, they suddenly felt as if a door had been slammed
in their faces, which led to resentment. Buruma analyses the hurt
pride of those who felt as if their existence was denied, and who
sometimes took radical measures to restore meaning to their lives.
He suggests that something similar happened to Mohammed B., who,
over a short period of time, changed from a model citizen into someone
who saw it as his task to slaughter Theo van Gogh and then die as
a martyr. What B. did is exceptional, but the feeling of being excluded
The Netherlands likes to think of itself as an open society, but
in fact it has an exclusionist club mentality, Buruma recently told
NRC Handelsblad. “People who are members know all the rules
without having to discuss them. No one is after the blood of those
who are not members, but: they are not members”.
Unwritten rules determine whether someone is in or out. An example
is that the former leader of the conservative VVD, Frits Bolkestein,
made a problem of Muslim children not singing Sinterklaas songs
(Sinterklaas being the Dutch version of Santa Claus). Or the consternation
that arose when an imam refused to shake hands with integration
minister Rita Verdonk: “In my view, the fact that that is
taken so seriously in the Netherlands, is an expression of that
The attitude towards immigrants was further affected by the impression
that they are profiteers who take advantage of the welfare state.
In fact, the welfare state was not designed for dealing with large
numbers of immigrants, Buruma thinks.
In America, immigrants are forced to fend for themselves, which
in the end turns out for the best. Buruma’s views on this
matter are close to those of current VVD party leader Mark Rutte,
who is entertaining the idea, inspired by American welfare reform,
of largely doing away with social assistance. Rutte too says that
the unemployed will eventually be better off if you take away their
That Buruma likes the dynamics of American society is not so hard
to understand. However, he fails to mention the drawbacks of American
welfare reform, such as the one million single mothers who have
no official income.
Copying the American system would be too simple a solution. The
challenge is to stimulate flexibility, initiative and social mobility,
without sacrificing equality and income security. Perhaps this requires
doing away with social assistance and many subsidies, but not without
introducing a modest basic income.
Buruma’s book has been criticised by right-wing intellectuals.
In NRC Handelsblad and in the Groene Amsterdammer, Frits Bolkestein,
Paul Scheffer, Theodor Holman, Bart Jan Spruyt and Afshin Ellian
have complained that Buruma would have misquoted them or that their
quotes would have been presented out of context.
Most of the examples they present consider minor details that do
not really affect the thrust of Buruma’s argument. It is a
different matter with former VVD-leader Bolkestein, who was quoted
as saying: “One must never underestimate the degree of hatred
that Dutch people feel for Moroccan and Turkish immigrants. My political
success is based on the fact that I was prepared to listen to such
A spokesperson of Bolkestein said in NRC Handelsblad: “The
quote is incorrect”. Buruma responded in the same newspaper:
“It is absolutely what he has said. No doubt about it. I wrote
it down immediately”.
The fact that it is precisely the right-wing intellectuals who
attack Buruma might create the impression that this group is severely
criticized in his book. However, this is not really the case. Both
left and right-wing intellectuals get to express their views. Buruma
sometimes gives subtle indications of his own views, but most of
the time he leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions.
Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and
the Limits of Tolerance. The Penguin Press, ISBN 1-59420-108-0.
Price 35 euro.
Twan Huys, Ik ben een New Yorker. Prometheus, ISBN 90 446 0864
9. Price 15 euro.
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