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the Complete Review
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Murder in Amsterdam

Ian Buruma

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To purchase Murder in Amsterdam

Title: Murder in Amsterdam
Author: Ian Buruma
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 264 pages
Availability: Murder in Amsterdam - US
Murder in Amsterdam - UK
Murder in Amsterdam - Canada
Murder in Amsterdam - India
On a tué Theo Van Gogh - France
Die Grenzen der Toleranz - Deutschland
Assassinio a Amsterdam - Italia
Asesinato en Amsterdam - España
  • US hardcover subtitle: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
  • US paperback subtitle: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance
  • Shortlisted for BBC FOUR Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2007

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting account, well presented -- but only goes so far

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2006 Alex Abramovich
City Journal B 25/10/2006 Theodore Dalrymple
Commentary . 10/2006 Kay S. Hymowitz
Commonweal . 20/4/2007 John T. McGreevy
The Economist A 2/9/2006 .
FAZ . 17/3/2007 Dirk Schümer
The Guardian A 2/12/2006 Natasha Walter
Literary Review A 10/2006 Justin Marozzi
London Rev. of Books . 14/12/2006 Peter Mair
National Review . 4/12/2006 Andrew Stuttaford
New Statesman A- 30/10/2006 Nick Cohen
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/10/2006 Timothy Garton Ash
The NY Times . 13/9/2006 William Grimes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/9/2006 Christopher Caldwell
The Observer . 29/10/2006 Geraldine Bedell
Progressive . 4/2007 Nina Siegal
Salon A 27/9/2006 Matt Steinglass
San Francisco Chronicle . 24/9/2006 Peter Lewis
The Spectator B+ 14/10/2006 Sam Leith
The Telegraph . 15/10/2006 Michael Burleigh
The Telegraph . 1/4/2007 Alastair Sooke
TLS A+ 15/12/2006 Caryl Phillips
Wall Street Journal B 9/9/2006 Leon De Winter
The Washington Post B 24/9/2006 Peter Beinart
The Wilson Quarterly . Fall/2006 Eric Weinberger
Die Zeit . 5/7/2007 Eckhard Nordhofen

  Review Consensus:

  Well-written, generally impressed, though many find it fairly inconclusive

  From the Reviews:
  • "(H)is slim but free-ranging investigation (which covers the year after the murder and devotes chapters to van Gogh, Fortuyn, Hirsi Ali, and Bouyeri, among others) succeeds, in part, because he's willing to wrestle with the larger issues raised by van Gogh's death." - Alex Abramovich, Bookforum

  • "Buruma is good at depicting the crosscurrents of Dutch society. (…) You sense reluctance on the author’s part to tackle the really difficult questions, for fear of being too offensive. He is so judicious that he arrives at no judgment. At the book’s end we are no nearer knowing what the limits of tolerance are or should be than we were at the beginning. (…) The smell of political correctness wafts gently through the book. (…) That said, his book is highly readable, and it is not as if readers of English are well-supplied with books about the cultural and political situation of Holland." - Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal

  • "Ian Buruma’s examination of this subject is unusually lucid." - John T. McGreevy, Commonweal

  • "The conundrum facing the Netherlands and other countries in Europe is how to tolerate a growing minority that is itself increasingly intolerant. Mr Buruma produces a persuasive analysis of the rise of radical Islam in the Netherlands, but offers precious few answers. Ever since Van Gogh's murder Dutch society has been in a funk. The spectre of Islamist terrorism haunting Europe only makes it worse." - The Economist

  • "Seine Studie, die jetzt in Deutschland unter dem Titel Die Grenzen der Toleranz erschienen ist und (…) dröselt die unglaublichen biographischen Fäden im holländischen Gesellschaftsdrama der letzten Jahre mit Scharfblick auseinander." - Dirk Schümer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The exploration of Bouyeri's motivation is in some ways the heart of the book. Buruma examines a wide mixture of political and personal causes, including Bouyeri's need for an authority figure, his propensity for violence, his desire for a useful role in his community, the discrimination he felt he encountered, the Islamic propaganda that fed on his alienation, and, interestingly, even European traditions of utopianism (…) Such a nuanced exploration stands in rebuke to much of the lazy polemic written about European Muslims today." - Natasha Walter, The Guardian

  • "Buruma tells the story of the main protagonists of this unhappy tale, delving into the pasts of van Gogh, Hirsi Ali, Mohammed Bouyeri and the politician Pim Fortuyn to craft a narrative so pacy it has you wondering whether you are reading a Frederick Forsyth thriller. (…) Ian Buruma’s powerful and remarkable book will surely fly off the shelves in Holland, but it deserves a far, far wider audience than that." - Justin Marozzi, Literary Review

  • "For all his subtlety and seriousness, Buruma falls into the trap and is uncomfortable with brown-skinned people who take ideas of human freedom too literally. (…) Murder in Amsterdam is well written, well researched and often wise, but a faint whiff of intellectual cowardice rises from its pages none the less." - Nick Cohen, New Statesman

  • "Dutch by upbringing, Mr. Buruma manages to pick up on nuances and historical threads that other writers might easily overlook. (…) 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. With the battle lines drawn, he expresses the fond hope that reason and moderation will prevail on both sides. The sentiment falls sweetly on ears tuned to that particular frequency. The question is how to transmit it to a fanatic on a bicycle." - William Grimes, The New York Times

  • "Buruma, who was born in the Netherlands in 1951 and has lived mostly abroad since 1975, is less interested in the details of the killing than in what followed: the ideologies vindicated or discredited, the prejudices revealed and the doubts cast on the workability of what only 10 years ago was considered Europe’s most easygoing society." - Christopher Caldwell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But the great strength of Buruma's book, which is part reportage, part essay, is to demonstrate that such stark oppositions are not only inadequate to describe what is happening, but liable to inflame hostility to a degree that will become unbearable for us all. He shows that Enlightenment values have been commandeered by conservatives who think multiculturalism has gone 'too far' and who parade their commitment to them as a badge of national and cultural identity. Enlightenment values are, for them, not merely universal, since they derive from reason, but they are 'our' universals, rooted in Western culture." - Geraldine Bedell, The Observer

  • "Buruma is probably in a better position than almost anyone to insightfully sum up the full range of conflicting ideology, but he doesn't." - Nina Siegal, Progressive

  • "A better book about the contemporary Netherlands has not been written." - Matt Steinglass, Salon

  • "It is a work of philosophical and narrative tension, strikingly sharp and brooding, frank and openly curious. Which is apt, for here is the Netherlands -- home to the Enlightenment, bastion of tolerance -- experiencing an act of mortal intolerance. The Netherlands, where multiculturalism is worn on its sleeve, meets its evil twin. (…) Burma is wary to provide a pat answers, though perhaps operating within a nation's rules of law is a sensible starting point." - Peter Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Buruma sometimes inclines to pop psychology and zeitgeist talk rather than rigorous analysis. It can lead him to be more impressionistic than one would like. (…) But he is more qualified than most to pronounce on the character of life in Holland. His reporting can’t be faulted; he writes, for the most part, elegantly, and he gives a good and thought-provoking sense of the complexity of the cross-currents that inform this particular, and particularly strange, historical moment. Buruma is not long on offering solutions, but he frames the problems acutely." - Sam Leith, The Spectator

  • "In Buruma's fascinating book Holland comes across as a rather nasty little place filled with people whose smugness is matched only by their blunt rudeness." - Michael Burleigh, The Telegraph

  • "How could such a brutal act occur in Europe's most progressive enclave ? Is multiculturalism a mistake ? In this even-handed account, Ian Buruma, an Anglo-Dutch professor at New York's Bard College, sets out to answer these hydra-headed questions. He avoids bombast and polemic throughout and never loses sight of the fact that violence isn't endemic to Islam." - Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph

  • "This brilliant piece of literary journalism -- part autobiography, part reportage, part extended essay -- unfolds with the narrative verve of a thriller, yet it artfully manages to pose a series of tough questions. (…) There will be many other books on this subject, but Buruma's combination of personal dismay and judicious intelligence makes this urgent, eloquent book a model for those that will follow." - Caryl Phillips, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mr. Buruma grew up in Amsterdam and lives in the U.S., but as a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College -- and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and other liberal-media bastions -- he has not strayed far from the orthodoxies that rule life in Holland. And that status presents serious hurdles for him when he tries to make sense of what he found upon returning home in 2005 to put together this assessment. (…) Fortunately, Mr. Buruma is such a good writer and reporter that Murder in Amsterdam is always engaging, despite the shortcomings of its analysis. (…) Mr. Buruma examines the outer skin of this world, but he seems incapable of cutting down to the bone and examining the disturbing fears and paradoxes at the heart of the story." - Leon De Winter, Wall Street Journal

  • "For better and worse, Murder in Amsterdam still reads like a New Yorker article. At book length, its lack of a clear structure is problematic. 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. (…) Murder in Amsterdam's strength is less as a meditation on the limits of tolerance than as a meditation on Holland." - Peter Beinart, The Washington Post

  • "Murder in Amsterdam is a tabloid title, and Buruma presents himself as something of the ¬gentleman ¬sleuth or boulevardier moving about in Amsterdam, The Hague, and other Dutch towns, consuming many cups of tea and coffee as he carefully draws out his subjects (…..) It makes for suspenseful reading, and Buruma’s investigations reveal van Gogh to be more complex than either caricature or his enemies would have us believe. Buruma’s book is notable for its calm nar¬rative informed by a total immersion in Dutch language and culture. The analysis isn’t as exceptional" - Eric Weinberger, The Wilson Quarterly

  • "Der Leser kann aus Burumas Grenzen der Toleranz eine Lehre ziehen, die wahrscheinlich nicht im Sinne des sympathischen Autors ist. Für eine Metareligion Toleranz gibt es weder eine Theorie noch eine funktionierende Praxis." - Eckhard Nordhofen, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The murder in Amsterdam at the centre of Ian Buruma's book is that of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 by the Dutch son of Moroccan immigrants, acting "out of faith" because he felt obliged to "cut off the heads of al those who insult Allah and his prophet" (in other words, the act of someone entirely deluded and misguided). Buruma offers an interesting account of what led up to the crime and the parties involved in what is one of the most striking examples to date of the clash of cultures being played out especially in western Europe, where what likes to consider itself a tolerant and open society has to deal with the children of the (often Islamic) immigrants that have settled there en masse in recent decades.
       The provocative and often deliberately insulting filmmaker van Gogh is presented very much as a child of his times -- and his confrontational (if, in a sense, good-humoured) approach as something that was (more or less) understood and accepted in tolerant Holland. Meanwhile, his murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, was a youth who for a time seemed to have some potential to become a productive member of society but instead became radicalized, embracing Islam, and coming to take it very, very seriously -- arguably because he could not find his place in Dutch society (although he seems always to have had what can be called anger management issues -- i.e. he was quick to react with violence).
       Buruma offers a good portrait of Holland and the changing conditions there: long priding itself as a centre of the Enlightenment and a tolerant society, the close-knit Dutch world has nevertheless had trouble adapting to some of the recent rapid changes, specifically in integrating the large influx of foreigners. (In 1999 45 per cent of Amsterdam's population was "of foreign origin", and Buruma says projections suggest it will be 52 per cent in 2015 -- though he doesn't look at the demographics more closely, not making clear how 'foreign' that population really is (i.e. are these EU citizens, or those from beyond EU-borders, etc.).) Some ghettoization has occurred, and Buruma makes a good case that it is especially the displaced second-generation -- the children of the original, often poorly educated immigrants who were made to feel at home in neither their parents' culture, nor in Holland itself -- that have the most difficulty in finding a place for themselves (and hence in some cases act out in unacceptable ways). (Some of the evidence, however, requires more explanation, as when he repeats a psychiatrist's claim that: "A young Moroccan male of the second generation was ten times more likely to be schizophrenic than a native Dutchman from a similar economic background", a claim that at the very least requires a clear definition of what is meant by 'schizophrenic'.)
       The appeal of the ultimate irrationality, religion, -- and especially Islam, which has so readily been abused for the most intolerant and outrageous actions in recent times -- to those who can not find a hold elsewhere comes as no surprise, but proves very dangerous in an open society. In each country the situation is a different one, both from the approach to those who choose to live there to the outside influences they bring with them: alone the Islamic immigrants in a variety of European countries -- say Britain (with the large South-East Asian contingent), France (Algerian), Germany (Turkish), and Holland -- each make for a very different immigrant community, and in each case the state's treatment of the foreigners (including how readily to allow them to become citizens) also varies widely. Buruma's book describes the special Dutch conditions and circumstances, and while it is illuminating -- even just in the questions it raises (offering, as it does, few answers) -- hardly allows for larger lessons that are applicable throughout Europe (much less America, where the immigrant-experience (and the immigrant-related issues) tend to be completely different ones).
       Buruma offers an interesting account, and a lot of insight into the Dutch world, but ultimately the van Gogh case isn't all that revealing. The case is too clear-cut: no matter what van Gogh's provocation, the murder was beyond the pale, and though Buruma is able to trace the evolution of Mohammed Bouyeri to the point where he committed this act there's no excuse or even any real explanation for what he did. Bouyeri is a weak, pathetic thug who couldn't channel his personal failure any other way than to harm another human being. The Allah-excuse is a feeble one; Bouyeri's belief that his act was in some way the 'right' thing to do nothing more than a delusion. His acting out fortunately remains an extreme example and certainly there's an interest in keeping those from similar (or, indeed, any) circumstances from following down the same path, but given his unique circumstances it's not clear what the solutions might be.
       Buruma suggests many of the reasons there is friction, problems, and the potential for disasters (such as the murder of Theo van Gogh), as well as the difficulties of remaining 'tolerant'. There are useful reminders of how intolerant parts of the Dutch model were until relatively recently: the separation by religion, or the fact that: "Until 1954, women in government jobs were automatically fired when they got married". Islamic fundamentalism poses a particular problem -- or at least is one which has garnered a lot of attention at the moment --, especially since it seems (at least in many of its currently popular manifestations) to be irreconcilable with European norms of tolerance. Still, given rapidly changing circumstances (economic, social, educational, and others) it's unclear what lessons can be leant -- or might be applicable -- from this even in just the near future.
       An interesting social-historical account, but not entirely satisfying as a discussion of the issues.

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Murder in Amsterdam: Reviews: Ian Buruma: Other books by Ian Buruma under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English-writing Dutch-born author Ian Buruma currently teaches at Bard. He was born in 1951.

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© 2007-2012 the complete review

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