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When worlds collide

The tension between radical Islam and European secular values is explored in Murder in Amsterdam

Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
By Ian Buruma
Penguin, 278 pp., $24.95

On Nov. 2, 2004, the Dutch director Theo van Gogh -- who had just released a film, ``Submission," protesting the treatment of women under Islam -- was butchered to death on an Amsterdam street by a radical Muslim born and bred in that city. In ``Murder in Amsterdam," Ian Buruma explores the grim culture clash in the Netherlands (and in Western Europe generally) on which this atrocity threw a spotlight.

Readers familiar with the Dutch-born Buruma's incisive earlier critiques of Islamism and of its European apologists might expect more of the same. But a curiously different Buruma emerges here. 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.

For example, he characterizes politician Pim Fortuyn, murdered in 2002, as a ``potential menace" because of his ``loathing of Islam" -- hardly a fair description of a gay liberal's unease over the growing number of people in his country who considered homosexuality a capital offense. Similarly, in Somali-Dutch legislator (and van Gogh scriptwriter) Ayaan Hirsi Ali's ``battle for secularism," we're invited to see ``echoes" of her youthful ``enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood." These are heroes , yet Buruma focuses repeatedly on their supposed arrogance, fanaticism, and personal eccentricities. He even calls them dangerous -- while insisting that Abdelhakim Chouaati, a history teacher who thinks ``9/11 was a Jewish plot," isn't. Buruma argues that if only Muslims can be made to feel truly ``at home" in the Netherlands (where they make up nearly half the urban population), all will be well.

Never mind that Chouaati, who does feel at home there, still wants to see it under sharia law.

Chouaati isn't the only Islamist sympathizer depicted here as gracious, sensitive, and quietly thoughtful. Nora, a student, sweetly endorses jihad; Farhane, an actor, owes his career to van Gogh but won't explicitly condemn his murder. ``I can see how one can be pushed into it," Farhane admits, calling ``Submission" ``an insult, the kind of insult I could never forget."

Farhane is hardly alone among European Muslims in seeing insults almost everywhere. And Buruma buys it, asserting that Muslims have reason to fear ethnic Dutchmen and chiding Hirsi Ali for having ``risked offending a minority that was already feeling vulnerable."

True, some European Muslims are painfully vulnerable -- notably girls forced into marriage by their fathers, and women whose husbands see wife-beating as a sacred right. Also vulnerable in Europe today are groups that are the special objects of Muslim contempt. The leading Dutch gay rights organization admits that thanks to Muslim gay-bashing, tolerance in Amsterdam is slipping away ``like sand through the fingers"; a 2004 French government report asserted that ``Jewish children can no longer get an education" in France , owing to abuse by Muslim classmates.

No, European immigrant life isn't easy. There are injustices. But newcomers from, say, Vietnam or Chile manage to become hard-working, law-abiding citizens. In Britain, unemployment and crime rates are far lower for Hindus than Muslims. (Nor are British Hindus plotting to blow up planes.) Yes, Europe's Muslim crisis is partly about the difficulty of being an immigrant anywhere, and partly about Europeans' bizarre mix of personal discomfort with and unbridled welfare-state generosity toward ``outsiders." But it's mostly about Islam, whose adherents are encouraged to see all of Western culture as an insult to their faith. In a recent poll, 40 percent of British Muslims admitted they'd like to see Britain under sharia law.

Buruma skirts such unsettling facts -- deep-sixing, for instance, many of the more harrowing aspects of European Muslim culture -- even as he approvingly paraphrases author Geert Mak to the effect that the Netherlands' problem ``is not Islam, or religion as such" but ``just the usual tensions that occur when uprooted rural people start new lives in the metropolis." Nonsense: The present tensions have less to do with ``uprooted rural people" than with their grown-up, Dutch-born sons who drive BMWs and already think of Europe as part of the Muslim umma, or nation.

Significantly, one category of Dutchmen is conspicuously absent from Buruma's interviewees: ordinary non-Muslims whose lives have been transformed by Islamization. You'd never know from Buruma that while Islamic immigration continues, emigration is skyrocketing as ethnic Dutchmen flee a country where they feel increasingly unsafe.

Buruma's prescription for his homeland? Dismayingly, he supports Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen's call for an ``accommodation with the Muslims," including toleration ``of orthodox Muslims who consciously discriminate against their women." The Netherlands, Cohen argues, should accept ``opinions and habits even if we do not share them, or even approve of them." Including forced marriage? Wife-beating? Cohen, says Buruma, ``deserves the benefit of the doubt." What doubt? What Cohen is proposing is the denial of fundamental rights to Muslim women and children.

``Attacking religion," Buruma contends, is not the answer to Europe's problems. In fact , frank criticism of Islam is as vital now as frank criticism of Christianity was to the Enlightenment. ``Perhaps Western civilization, with the Amsterdam red-light district as its fetid symbol, does have something to answer for," he suggests. No: What the West needs now is not this dismaying readiness to compromise liberty, but van Gogh's and Hirsi Ali's staunch refusal to sell out anyone's rights to pacify puritanical patriarchs.

Bruce Bawer is the author of ``While Europe Slept" and a former resident of Amsterdam.

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