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Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
By: 
Ian Buruma
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The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

A-Murder in AmsterdamTheo van Gogh, great-grandnephew of the famous painter and a Dutch film director, was an outspoken critic of Islam; his short documentary, Submission, dealt with Islam’s treatment of women. In Amsterdam on November 2, 2004, a young Muslim radical slit van Gogh’s throat. A manifesto addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Muslim woman and controversial politician who collaborated with van Gogh on the film, was pinned to the dead man’s chest with a knife. Ian Buruma, a Holland-born journalist, returned to his homeland to try to make sense of the incident and explore the tense relations between Muslims and the Dutch. Although the Netherlands has an international reputation as a bastion of free expression, Buruma reveals the reality that far differs from perception.
Penguin. 288 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1594201080

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Buruma’s writing is crisp and smart. He is unafraid to venture opinions, and reach conclusions, that not everyone will agree with." Steven Rea

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Consisting largely of profiles of and interviews with contemporary Dutchmen—obscure and famous, Muslim and not—this is an elegantly written, absorbing, and unquestionably important document of our times. Yet, bafflingly, while Buruma’s portraits of the standard-bearers for democracy often appear calculated to undermine our admiration for them, time and again he seems to invite us to empathize with apologists for jihad." Bruce Bawer

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Murder in Amsterdam is Ian Buruma’s exploration of the event, its context and fallout. It is a work of philosophical and narrative tension, strikingly sharp and brooding, frank and openly curious." Peter Lewis

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The author’s argumentation is so finely nuanced that it seems, frankly, to be a noble if misguided effort to call down a plague on the houses of both established Dutch society and the Muslim immigrant community. … Yet the weight of the evidence he offers for the disharmony in Dutch society falls mostly against Muslim radicals and unassimilated immigrants." Roger K. Miller

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book contains little hard data and makes no pretense of being social science. It’s impressionistic, excursive reportage—centering on a dozen or so interviews—that is knowing and intimate but occasionally marred by subtly questionable assumptions." Stephanie Giry

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Two murders have left the citizens of two cultures, living in the same country, staring at each other across a gulf and wondering how to move forward. Mr. Buruma is not sure, and at the end he disappears in a puff of rhetorical smoke." William Grimes

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The order in which characters appear sometimes seems random, and, in typical New Yorker style, Buruma’s opinions remain somewhat submerged, confined to asides here and there. Despite the book’s subtitle, The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Buruma never quite explains what he thinks those limits are." Peter Beinart

Critical Summary

The well-traveled Ian Buruma, a Bard College professor, previously published Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies (2005) and The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (2002), among others. Buruma’s account of Theo van Gogh’s death was first published in the New Yorker in January 2005. The book, an expanded version of the magazine piece, is timely. Buruma receives much praise for his writing and reporting skills, though several critics comment on the book’s lack of structure. Buruma’s willingness to examine the story from all angles is his strength, leading in the final analysis to a nuanced understanding of the situation and an evenhanded piece on a seemingly impenetrable issue. The book suffers from this impenetrability as well: Buruma provides a record of the events but few answers to the questions he inevitably raises. But has anyone else managed to answer these questions yet?