42 pages 1 hour read

Ian Buruma

Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance is a 2006 nonfiction book written by Dutch professor and social scientist Ian Buruma. The book investigates both the murder of Theo van Gogh, a prominent Dutch filmmaker, social critic, and opponent of political Islam in Europe. Additionally, it explores feelings of historical guilt, liberal mores, and the changing social fabric that has created tension between the native Dutch and the large, mostly Muslim immigrant communities—“dish cities” (21)—that are springing up throughout the Netherlands. Although Buruma does not directly inject his own politics sentiments into the narrative, he seems to be an ally of van Gogh and other secular humanistic children of the European Enlightenment, who view the foundational tenets of Western Civilization to be secular, humanist, and beholden to the rule of man-made laws upholding equal rights regardless of gender, race, or sexuality.

Apart from a brief introduction to van Gogh’s assassination by a young, disaffected Dutch-Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri, Buruma spends little time recounting the actual events of van Gogh’s death. Rather, he focuses on the political climate that allowed for the murder of the Dutch filmmaker. Through interviews with prominent social activists, actors, philosophers, and regular citizens, Buruma attempts to construct a wide and varied picture of the current political climate in the Netherlands as well as the perspective of the everyday people who populate both the erudite, artistic enclaves of The Hauge with those who live in the immigrant ghettos on the margins of traditional Dutch society.

Murder in Amsterdam is less about the murder of Theo van Gogh than it is a window into the current battle for the soul of modern Europe. The question arises whether Europe will manage to uphold the principles of such great thinkers as Voltaire, Erasmus, and Spinoza, while integrating a new section into European society, or if it will ultimate crumble under the weight of an entirely different system, social code, and set of beliefs. Central to Buruma’s treaties are notions of identity, history, and social responsibility. By attempting to trace the causes of the current Dutch mindset, Burma plots a clear course from the 17th century to the present-day Dutch European consciousness that seems at one both completely for and diametrically opposed to the integration of Muslim immigrants into its liberal, welcoming society.

Through a series of seven chapters, each of which takes a specific character or theme as its focal point, Buruma constructs an episodic plot that is ultimately connected by the fundamental questions all of his subjects are forced to grapple with: namely, how can one merge free speech with tolerance; what, if any, is the role of religion in a modern, secular society; and how do the ghosts of history inform the present day political climate in the Netherlands and the rest of Western Europe.  

At the heart of Murder in Amsterdam is the question of whether or not the liberal ideal of multi-culturalism is possible in a living, breathing society. Far from leaving the reader with a neatly tied up conclusion, Buruma’s text ends almost exactly where it began, with readers no closer to finding a solution to the current problem, but wiser in that at least they have begun to contemplate, if only superficially, the perspectives on both sides of an argument that has no easy mode of resolution.