A few weeks ago I heard Job Cohen, the Mayor of Amsterdam, speak at his official residence on Herengracht. The mayor opened a writers' conference with welcoming charm, but what struck me more than his words was the rococo splendour of the decor. Behind the plain canal-side frontage, municipal opulence runs riot. Ian Buruma's absorbing and revealing work of reportage takes its cue from the bitter battles over Islam, integration and "the limits of tolerance" that shake society and politics in the Netherlands today. But it's just as much a book about the long, resentful stand-off between the Dutch people and their governing elites: the regenten who, behind a façade of sanctimonious, Calvinistic sobriety, jealously guarded their pleasures and their privileges.
Buruma works back, and forwards, from the vicious knife-murder of the anti-Islamic provocateur, chat-show host and film-maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004. Emblematically enough, he was attacked on his bicycle by a radical hot-head and wannabe jihadi, Mohammed Bouyeri. Through interviews, visits, historical vignettes and the memories of a Hague-raised writer who left his native land at 24, Buruma weaves a convincing patchwork portrait of a place where the multicultural ideology built from "an odd combination of charity and indifference" seems to have dissolved faster than whipped cream in a morning coffee.
The obvious heroine - or anti-heroine - of this story is the secularist pin-up Ayaan Hirsi Ali: the Somali "very bogus asylum seeker" (her words to Buruma) and anti-clerical activist. A noisily public apostasy from the Islam of her upbringing brought her into van Gogh's orbit, and launched a collaboration - on the inflammatory TV film Submission - that helped trigger his death at the hands of one more second-generation misfit. Buruma upholds her, and van Gogh's, freedoms with uncompromising clarity. Yet subtly, and rather brilliantly, he shows how Hirsi Ali has followed the Dutch path to become one of the regenten herself, as she lectures her benighted former co-religionists on their backward and non-Enlightened ways.
Job Cohen's words and acts crop up almost as often as hers; and many readers might find in him the true moral centre of this tale. Cohen takes flak from all sides. As the son of a mother who survived the deportations that killed 100,000 Dutch Jews apart from Anne Frank, he predictably counts as part of a "Jewish cabal" that runs the country in the fevered fantasies of old-style neo-Nazis, and new-wave Islamists. His measured defence of the multicultural model has also made him a target of sneering disdain from van Gogh's party of ultra-secularists.
These tumults and tensions make Murder in Amsterdam an especially vital book for British readers now. We gaze into a partially distorting mirror, where many things look almost identical (from jingoistic football fans to the war over Muslim women's faces) but some seem sharply different - most of all, the still-toxic "guilty memories" of the German occupation. In Amsterdam or Accrington, Europe's agonising tangle over race, religion and respect calls for a cool head and a long view. Buruma supplies both.Reuse content