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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
  • Without welfare state provisions, integration will operate more smoothly, Buruma thinks

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 future lay.

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 probably not.

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 club mentality”.

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 social assistance.

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 people”.

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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