"It’s the South Bronx,” my friend Max Pam said as he drove me to his old neighborhood, the Overtoomse Veld, in west Amsterdam. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the South Bronx. Dreary rather than menacing, more shabby than poor, the neighborhood of gray concrete nineteen-fifties tenements had changed drastically in one respect since Max lived there as a child. Once a suburb for young Dutch families, the Overtoomse Veld is now inhabited almost entirely by immigrants, mainly people of Moroccan or Turkish origin. Areas like this, to the west, east, and north of Amsterdam, are often called “dish cities,” because of the many satellite dishes picking up TV stations in North Africa and the Middle East.
The men came first, as migrant workers in the late nineteen-sixties, to do jobs that the Dutch no longer wished to do: hard and dirty jobs in industry, or cleaning buildings and streets. Women followed about a decade later, often as brides, usually illiterate, dispatched straight from their villages to strange men in an even stranger land. Most of the workers are now worn out, unemployed, living on welfare. Their wives still inhabit a strange country, whose language and customs they never mastered.
There are roughly a million and a half first-generation immigrants in the Netherlands (ten per cent of the population), among them Turks and Surinamese, along with refugees from all over Africa and Asia. The Surinamese, mostly of Indian or African descent, already spoke Dutch in their native country, a former Dutch colony, and are relatively well integrated. The Turkish immigrants live mainly quiet and increasingly prosperous lives. The most problematic minority, in terms of street crime and other forms of maladjustment, is the Moroccans—many of them Moroccan Berbers originally from remote villages in the Rif Mountains.
The streets of Max’s old neighborhood were remarkably empty, except for some veiled women and old men in djellabahs, frequenting halal butchers and stores that offer cheap telephone connections to North Africa. Young men with little to do—hangjongeren, or “hangabouts”—loitered around August Allebé Square, where petty crime is common. Max pointed out the broken windows in his old school, now a so-called black school, where most of the children are from Muslim families.
Max is a successful writer and newspaper columnist, a figure on the Amsterdam literary scene, and a close friend of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered on November 2nd. Van Gogh was riding his bicycle to work when a bearded young man, dressed in a long Middle Eastern-style shirt, shot him several times. Van Gogh begged for mercy, and reportedly said, in a peculiarly Dutch phrase, “Surely we can talk about this.” The young man then pulled out a knife, slit van Gogh’s throat from ear to ear, kicked the dying body, and walked away. He had apparently hoped to die himself, as a martyr in his holy war, but was arrested a short time after the murder. Van Gogh, meanwhile, lay on the street with a letter pinned to his stomach by the killer’s knife.
Mohammed Bouyeri—or Mohammed B., as he is called in the Dutch press—is not a great stylist, but his letter is written in the clear prose of an educated Dutchman. It contains a farewell poem that begins, “This is my last word, riddled with bullets, baptized in blood, as I had hoped.” The poem is followed by jihadist slogans, and a letter to the Somalian-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script for Theo van Gogh’s last film, “Submission.” She is called an “unbelieving fundamentalist” and a heretic in the service of her lying “Jewish masters,” “products of the Talmud” who “dominate Dutch politics.” Hirsi Ali would be smashed against the hard diamond of Islam. The United States, Europe, Holland—all were doomed.
Mohammed Bouyeri, twenty-six, was born in Amsterdam and grew up in Max Pam’s old neighborhood. His family background is fairly typical for a second-generation Moroccan immigrant. His father speaks halting Dutch, and has been crippled by years of menial labor. No longer able to kneel, he has to pray sitting in a chair. Mohammed has three sisters and one brother. His mother died of cancer in 2002.
Mohammed was never a hangabout. On the contrary, he had a good high- school education, and was known to his teachers as a promising young man. He was, as they say in the neighborhood, a positivo, who would surely make it in Dutch society. Not just ambitious for himself, Mohammed was always helping out troubled Moroccan kids, making plans for a youth program at his old school, and writing uplifting articles for a neighborhood bulletin. He was someone who could talk to city councillors and social workers. He knew his way around the intricate byways of Holland’s generous welfare system, where applying for subsidies is an essential skill.
Things didn’t quite work out as Mohammed had hoped, however. A subsidy for a community center he’d been lobbying for was turned down. A promised renovation scheme for public housing never materialized. His mother’s death came as a shock. That year, Mohammed abandoned his studies in social work, went on welfare, and behaved in ways that were increasingly odd. In a meeting with community officials, he loudly proclaimed that Allah was the only God. He gave up alcohol, prayed all the time, refused to shake hands with women, and drifted to a fundamentalist mosque, El Tawheed. There he met Syrians and Algerians, who had been coming to Holland since September 11th, usually from France and Germany, to give religious instruction. Messages appeared on a Web site called Marokko.nl, allegedly written by Mohammed, promoting fundamentalist views on such subjects as the proper place of women.
Perhaps it was his mother’s death, or perhaps it was the series of setbacks and disappointments he encountered; in any event, Mohammed became unhinged. In his tiny apartment, he held meetings with an extremist group based in The Hague. A Syrian cleric spoke to the group about holy war. Two of his new friends were Western converts—one the son of an American—who made plans to blow up the Dutch parliament. Once a model pupil, apparently well adjusted to Dutch society, Mohammed Bouyeri became a holy warrior.
Theo van Gogh—fat, blond, absurdly generous toward his friends and madly vindictive toward his enemies, a worshipper of Roman Polanski, a talented filmmaker who never had enough patience to produce a masterpiece, a heavy smoker and consumer of cocaine and fine wines, a columnist of some style and shocking vulgarity, a doting father, a disgusting slob adored by many women, a provocateur, and a man of principle—had embarked on a very different kind of war: a war against what he regarded as hypocrisy and cant. We were slight acquaintances, and I always enjoyed his company. Not being part of the Amsterdam scene, I never felt the sting of his enmity.
Like most people of his and my post-war generation in Holland, Theo van Gogh was marked by stories of the Second World War, when the majority of Dutch people minded their own business while a minority (about a hundred thousand Jews, out of an estimated hundred and forty thousand) were taken away to be murdered. Van Gogh’s family, descended from Vincent’s brother Theo, was exceptional. His father fought in the resistance, as did his uncle, who was executed by the Germans. Van Gogh often referred to the war in his writings. “The jackboots are on the march again,” he wrote of the Islamists in Holland, “but this time they wear kaftans and hide behind their beards.” The Dutch officials, social workers, and politicians who appeased them were, in van Gogh’s eyes, akin to collaborators. A frequent target of his abuse was Amsterdam’s mayor, Job Cohen, who has tried to preserve civic harmony by making a show of treating Muslims with respect and understanding. “If anyone has not learned from ’40-’45 how unwise it is to want to live with marching jackboots who demand ‘respect,’ it’s the mayor,” van Gogh wrote. Cohen, as it happens, was among the “Jewish masters” whom Mohammed Bouyeri singled out as enemies of Islam.
For van Gogh, the worst crime was to look away. One of his bugbears was the long-standing refusal (since abandoned) of the Dutch press to identify the ethnic origin of criminals, so as not to inflame prejudice. He saw this as a sign of abject cowardice. To show respect for Islam without mentioning the Islamic oppression of women and homosexuals was an act of disgusting hypocrisy. In a free society, he believed, everything should be said openly, and not just said but shouted, as loudly and offensively as possible, until people got the point. It was not enough to call attention to illiberal Muslims; they were to be identified as “goat-fuckers.”
Van Gogh often expressed his admiration for the late Pim Fortuyn, the populist politician, who regularly proclaimed that there was no room for a bigoted religious minority in a liberal society, and that “Holland was full.” Van Gogh called Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002 by a deranged animal-rights activist, “the divine baldie,” partly to annoy the bien-pensant liberals, who were quick to denounce any criticism of minorities as racism. His friend Max Pam thinks that van Gogh’s attitude was mixed with professional rage; like Mohammed Bouyeri, van Gogh had trouble getting state subsidies, not for community centers but for his films. Yet there is no getting around van Gogh’s nasty streak. When the novelist and filmmaker Leon de Winter, whose work often revolves around his Jewish family background, managed to get public money for his projects, van Gogh detected cynical manipulation and sentimental cant. “Hey, it smells like caramel today—well then, they must be burning the diabetic Jews,” he wrote, mocking what he saw as a Jewish cult of victimhood. He described the Jewish historian Evelien Gans as “having wet dreams” about the Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. In the guilt-ridden land of Anne Frank, there is a certain amount of strained piety about such topics, but van Gogh’s response had all the subtlety of the Dutch football hooligans who find it amusing to abuse an Amsterdam soccer club known as “the Jews’ club” by mimicking the sound of escaping gas. Van Gogh seemed to regard delicacy as a sign of fraudulence, and in this he spared no one; Jesus, in his book, was “that rotting fish in Nazareth.”
For all his seeming intolerance, though, van Gogh was one of the few Dutch filmmakers to take a real interest in actors with a Moroccan background. “Najib en Julia,” a series made for television, is a highly sympathetic story about the love between a Dutch girl and a Moroccan boy. And personal attacks, though seldom as virulent as van Gogh’s, are a common feature of Dutch literary politics, where everyone knows everyone else. It is the violent rhetoric of a place where words are normally without serious consequences.
This is not the kind of place that Mohammed Bouyeri yearned for, and it was not the kind of place that Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from. They take things more seriously in Somalia, where she was born, and in Saudi Arabia, where she partly grew up. Suffering genital mutilation as a child was serious, as was a horrific beating she told of having received from a Muslim teacher in Kenya, when she no longer wished to attend his lessons. When her father, a dissident Somali politician, promised her in marriage to a distant cousin, his word of honor was absolute. And so was her resolve to defy the culture whose strictures she could no longer endure.
She escaped to Holland in 1992, learned to speak perfect Dutch, studied political science, worked with abused Muslim women, and became a politician, first in the social-democratic Labor Party and then in the more conservative Liberal Party. Hers is a politics of rage. Pim Fortuyn was right, she said, to call Islam a “backward religion.” Muslim schools should be abolished, and men who beat their wives and daughters should be punished by law. There is no doubt about the seriousness of her aims, and there is no doubt about the seriousness of the Muslims who regard her as an apostate and have called for her death.
Since September 11th, her views have had a receptive audience, but the collaboration with Theo van Gogh—the combination of her rage and his desire to offend—was bound to be particularly explosive. The subject of the eleven-minute film they made, “Submission,” is the abuse of women in the name of Allah. A young narrator tells the story of Muslim women in a quiet voice: flogged for a youthful love affair, raped by an uncle, forced into a repulsive marriage. All the while, words from the Koran appear, written on naked female bodies. Friends advised Hirsi Ali against making the film. It would lead to violence, they said. Muslims, distracted by the form, would not be receptive to the message. Her answer was that shock was the best route to awareness, and she is planning a sequel. But at the moment she is in such deep hiding that even her closest friends have not been able to reach her.
Many things happened as a result of Theo van Gogh’s murder, some violent, some merely bizarre. The rash of arson attacks on mosques and Muslim schools was perhaps to be expected, as were racist messages on Web sites and walls, and even on some of the floral tributes to van Gogh. “R.I.P. Theo!” was the message of one of the arsonists. Almost as predictable were some of the defensive reactions by young men of Moroccan origin, who cheered as they passed the spot of the filmmaker’s death. Friends of van Gogh, meanwhile, organized a raucous party, with a rock band, bottles of champagne ranged around a coffin, and two stuffed goats mounted on a stage, “for those who feel the urge.” This defiance could be seen as typical of cool, ironic Amsterdam. But there was an element also of van Goghian jeering, as though it were necessary, in his memory, to fan the fires a little higher.
In the week following the murder, politicians showed signs of panic. The justice minister, Piet Hein Donner, who is a Calvinist of the old school, suggested that a rather archaic law against blasphemy should be applied, something that had not been done since 1966, when the novelist Gerard van het Reve was prosecuted for comparing his conversion to the Catholic faith to making tender love to a donkey. Donner’s suggestion was not followed. Another politician, Geert Wilders, started a party of his own, the Groep Wilders, with a platform of barring all non-Western immigrants for five years and arresting Islamists, even when, as he put it to me, they are only “prepared” to break the law. Although, like Hirsi Ali, he has to hide from people who wish him dead, this hitherto obscure parliamentarian has soared in the opinion polls, and has positioned himself as the next Pim Fortuyn. In some estimates, his party would capture almost twenty per cent of the Dutch house of representatives if there were to be an election today. (In another poll, asking who the greatest figure in Dutch history was, Pim Fortuyn came second only to William the Silent.)
In the midst of all this zaniness, the commentators talked and talked: “Holland has lost its innocence”; “the end of multiculturalism”; “tolerance has its limits.” The general trend was rightward, and toward an atmosphere of perhaps exaggerated anxiety. Max Pam was not the only person I spoke to who believed that if the authorities didn’t tackle the Islamist problem now Holland would eventually have a civil war on its hands. Conservatives, who had warned for many years that Muslim immigration would cause problems, found new allies among former leftists. And liberals, such as Job Cohen, who had promoted tolerance and multiculturalism were denounced as irresponsible softies.
A key text in this national discussion was by Paul Scheffer, a social critic and an influential thinker in the Labor Party. In NRC Handelsblad, the most important national broadsheet, he wrote, “Segregation in the big cities is growing, and this is very bad news. That is why the soothing talk of diversity and dialogue, of respect and reason, no longer works. Tolerance can survive only within clear limits. Without shared norms about the rule of law, we cannot productively have differences of opinion. . . . The self-declared impotence of our government to guarantee public order is the biggest threat to tolerance.” To be sure, Scheffer had been saying this kind of thing for some time, but when old lefties cry out for law and order you know something has shifted in the political climate; it is now a common perception that the integration of Muslims in Holland has failed.
The Pieter Nieuwland College, situated in eastern Amsterdam near the spot where van Gogh was murdered, is a so-called confessional school, of Protestant denomination. Around sixty per cent of the pupils are from ethnic minorities—not an unusual number for schools in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Most Dutch educational establishments have a religious affiliation, as is true of some broadcasting companies, newspapers, and several political parties. These so-called pillars of Dutch civil society were developed in the late nineteenth century to pacify tensions and conflicts between the different religious communities. Most have been drained of their religious content by now, but the forms remain, and the state continues to subsidize confessional schools, including Muslim ones. What once worked to keep the peace among Protestants and Catholics, some people argue, now encourages illiberal religious prejudices, imported from the Middle East by people who don’t even speak Dutch.
I asked the principal of Pieter Nieuwland, W. J. M. Raeven, about the reaction in his school to the murder. He replied that there had been more tensions among the teachers than among the pupils. Adults, he said, “have this ‘us and them’ feeling that pupils don’t really share.” Still, he continued, there had been serious discussions in the classrooms, and these were encouraged, as long as they were carried out politely and in Dutch. (Only standard Dutch may be spoken in school.)
When our conversation turned to Mohammed Bouyeri, Raeven said that teachers had learned a lesson in recent years. It was wrong, he concluded, to put too much pressure on minority children. “We used to encourage them to work harder than other children, to go that extra length,” he said. “And many of them did, especially the girls, because education is one way of gaining independence from their fathers. But we put too much pressure on them. Even when they have done everything we asked of them, they will have disappointments. It is often harder for Muslim children to find jobs, for example. And when that happens they can get very angry indeed.”
A social-studies class I visited included Africans, Indians, Turks, Moroccans, an Egyptian, and a few whites. We had a discussion about van Gogh and Hirsi Ali, and the only girl in class who wore a veil spoke more often and more passionately than the others. The girl, who was born in Amsterdam to Moroccan parents, didn’t condone the murder but could “understand why Mohammed B. had sought comfort in Islam.” She said that people had insulted her in the streets after the murder, spitting at her feet or telling her to take off her veil. “When I hear people talk about ‘those fucking Moroccans,’ I feel defensive and really want to be Moroccan, but when I visit Morocco I know I don’t belong there, either.” A Moroccan-born boy said that it was because of her Dutch accent.
I noticed that some of the Muslim boys, who were described to me later as “quite fundamentalist,” snickered every time the veiled girl spoke, even when she argued, to loud protests from the other girls, that Muslim women were not oppressed. “Hirsi Ali is a dork,” she said. “She doesn’t look beyond her own experience.” The whites in the class remained silent, as though afraid to enter this treacherous terrain. One of the black students made fun of the Muslims’ preoccupation with “identity” and said, “Moroccan, Egyptian, Algerian—who the fuck cares. They’re all thieves.” The others laughed, even some of the Muslims. A dark-skinned girl with Indian features suddenly spoke: “I think Hirsi Ali is really brave. She is saying things no one else has the guts to talk about.” A Turkish boy who had tried to see both sides of the question said that maybe Hirsi Ali’s film had not been the best way to convince moderate Muslims.
I came away impressed with the pupils’ readiness to argue: on the surface, integration, at least at this school, seemed to be working all right. It was also clear how diverse “the Muslims” were. Those born in Holland, like the girl in the veil, seemed the most troubled, uncertain of where they belonged. And the Turks appeared to be more at ease than the Moroccans. Leaving the school, I thought of a press conference I had attended the previous day, when Muslim community leaders shook hands with a district councillor and discussed a “contract” to defend free speech and identify extremists. The Turkish representative spoke perfect Dutch, wore a business suit, and agreed with the proposal. The Moroccan representative spoke broken Dutch, and still needed “to consult” with his mosque.
One thing that angered both the Turkish and the Moroccan pupils in the Pieter Nieuwland College class was the tendency to lay the blame for terrorism indiscriminately on all Muslims. “Everything they hear about the culture of their parents is negative,” Raeven told me. One response to this is to view Mohammed Bouyeri simply as a madman. This is what Ahmed Larouz, a Moroccan who came to Holland as a teen-ager in the late nineteen-eighties, thinks: “I can’t explain what he did. If two hundred and eighty others had done the same thing, you could perhaps find an answer, but what he did was crazy. Maybe Islam made him even crazier. Then again, he knew nothing about Islam. I grew up in Muslim schools. Mohammed B. just cobbled his religion together in two years.”
Larouz sees himself as a Dutch-Moroccan role model. In 1997, together with four other Moroccan students, he set up tans (Towards a New Start), an organization that aimed at giving Muslims a more positive role in society. Today, Larouz works in an ultramodern office, wears snappy pin-striped suits, is attended to by secretaries in miniskirts, and talks like an old-fashioned American booster, full of pep and vigor. English is only one of the many languages he speaks. “Cultural management,” in the private and public sectors, is his business. He quoted lines by the rapper Tupac Shakur: “Mama, don’t cry, long as we try, maybe things are gonna change, perhaps it’s just a fantasy.”
But Larouz remains an exceptional figure. He had already attended high school in Morocco before he joined his parents in Holland, a place he had imagined as a land of freedom. He came not from a village in the Rif Mountains but from a city east of Casablanca. Though his father made his living in Holland as a cleaner, several of Ahmed’s siblings have graduate degrees. Larouz is proud to represent Holland at international conferences. Near his office door is a photograph of him shaking hands with Queen Beatrix. Ahmed Larouz is what Mohammed Bouyeri might have been.
Naturally, it is Bouyeri, not Larouz, whom Frits Bolkestein, the former leader of the Dutch Liberal Party and, until last November, the European Union commissioner, had in mind when, in the early nineties, he began to warn about the possible consequences of an uncontrolled influx of Muslims. The foreign-born population of Amsterdam was growing at one per cent a year. At that rate, he said, the main Dutch cities would have Muslim majorities in a decade or two. The government policy at the time was “integration while maintaining identity.” In practice, the idea was to deal with Muslims much as previous Dutch governments had dealt with Protestants and Catholics, by creating another “pillar.” Bolkestein disagreed, and wanted to have a debate.
Sitting with Bolkestein in his new office in the center of Amsterdam, I asked him to recall the days when he spoke out against the government policy. “The policy was complete nonsense, of course,” he says. “I wrote a piece in 1991 saying that integration would not work if our fundamental values clashed with those of the immigrants: separation of church and state, for instance, or the equality of men and women. Those things could not be negotiated, not even a little bit.”
What happened? “Well, half the world came down on me,” he says. “I was called racist, a hater of Islam. At one point, I feared for my personal safety.” None of the mainstream political parties wished to engage in a serious debate on these issues. “Blinded by ideology, people could not see what was going on,” he says, “but I was enough of a politician to sense what ordinary people in ‘church and bar’ were feeling, and I decided to tap into that.” This might sound like the typical talk of a right-wing populist, but many liberals, including Paul Scheffer, now regard Bolkestein as a hero, someone who had the courage to speak the truth when others were dodging the issue. Certainly, Bolkestein is a sophisticated thinker, and the refusal to take his arguments seriously had the unfortunate result that church and bar—kerk en kroeg, as the Dutch say—fell into the hands of demagogic politicians such as Pim Fortuyn. A flashy dresser and an openly gay man, Fortuyn was an unlikely hero in this ultra-bourgeois country, but his message that foreign intolerance could no longer be tolerated, and that it was time to restore bourgeois order by kicking out those foreigners, made him wildly popular. It was as though the Dutch, having looked the other way for so long, had woken up to a problem and were now demanding a radical solution.
Geert Wilders, the current promoter of anti-immigrant populism, has none of Fortuyn’s flamboyant appeal, although his extraordinary hairdo, a kind of lacquered blond bouffant, draped around a pink baby face, could be seen as a brave attempt at it. A former deputy and speechwriter for Bolkestein, he left the Liberal Party in September, 2004, because he felt it was pulling too much toward the center, while he wanted to go further to the right. Wilders has become an important figure on the post-van Gogh scene, though his efforts to organize a new party are somewhat hampered by the fact that he needs twenty-four-hour protection and has to stay in safe houses.
I saw him in his well-guarded office at Parliament, in The Hague. Wilders is a man obsessed with one idea: Holland’s failure to confront the Islamist threat. Nervously shuffling the few items on his desk, he spoke fast, as if there were no more time to lose: “It’s no coincidence that the first ritual slaughter happened here. We just let everybody in. There is no sense of urgency. The French intelligence people can’t believe how sloppy we are.” He reeled off names of people and organizations that, he said, have been operating in the Netherlands with impunity. “I’m furious that the Dutch government is incapable of taking hard measures. That would be better for the moderate Muslims, too. We must crack down. In this country, politicians have always tried to pacify minorities by mollycoddling them. All that holding of hands. It makes me sick.”
But cracking down may not be so easy. Wilders’s idea that only non-Western foreigners should be stopped from coming to the Netherlands is morally hard to condone, and arresting people on the mere suspicion of what they might do is not exactly in accordance with European human-rights treaties. Wilders insists that he is not a racist, or anti-Islam, even though he feels “in the depths of my heart that Islam is not compatible with democracy.” But he is engaged in the politics of fear, and fear is not a recipe for democratic moderation. “Van Gogh is only the beginning,” he said, just before we parted, “and you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
If fear has been stoked among the white population of the Netherlands, it is perhaps even more acute among the Muslim minorities. One afternoon, I took the ferry to a district called Amsterdam-North, built for dockworkers in the nineteen-tens and twenties. It is now the poorest Moroccan area of the city. Paul Scheerder, a former newspaperman, opened a home there for abused women and children. He married a Moroccan and converted to Islam. We drank mint tea in his office, and he told me about three girls staying in his shelter whose father stabbed his wife to death two years ago. We were joined by the neighborhood cop.
I asked them both how van Gogh’s murder had affected the streets of Amsterdam-North. “Fear,” the policeman said, while Scheerder nodded. “People were afraid of going out, frightened that they would be attacked for being Muslims. We put some extra security around the mosque, and people were very grateful for that.”
Things have calmed down since the first weeks after the killing, but Scheerder is still worried. He doesn’t like the idea of a new mosque being built in the area. It might be seen as a provocation. “We don’t want another murder, because then all hell could break loose,” he says. Scheerder tells me that he has seen boys like Mohammed Bouyeri, who seem all right one day and then suddenly go berserk. “People watch Moroccan and other Arab television stations,” he said, “and they see the Americans as the greatest criminals in history.”
This is the problem. Although Theo van Gogh was Dutch and was killed by a Dutch citizen, in the end this is not just a Dutch story but a Middle Eastern one imported to the heart of Europe. Mohammed Bouyeri, and hundreds like him, have plugged into a wider world of violent Web-based rhetoric and terrorist cells. The integration of Muslims in the Netherlands has not been a greater failure than anywhere else. But the country may have been less prepared for the holy war.
When the world comes to an end, Heinrich Heine is supposed to have said, one should go to Holland, for everything there happens fifty years later. This has not been true for quite a long time, but the attitude, bred by centuries of peace and prosperity, has lingered. The First World War passed by the Netherlands, which remained happily neutral. The Second World War did not, which is why the German Occupation, though much less brutal than it was, say, in Poland, was so traumatic.
After the war, and especially since the nineteen-sixties, the Dutch prided themselves on having built an oasis of tolerance, a kind of Berkeley writ large, where people were free to do their own thing. Liberated, at last, from the strictures of religion and social conformity, the Dutch, especially in Amsterdam, frolicked in the expectation that the wider world would not disturb their perfect democracy in the polders. Now the turbulent world has come to Holland at last, crashing into an idyll that astonished the citizens of less favored nations. It’s a shame that this had to happen, but naïveté is the wrong state of mind for defending one of the oldest and most liberal democracies against those who wish to destroy it.
It was raining when I said goodbye to Paul Scheerder. The streets of Amsterdam-North, though bleak, looked peaceful enough. I said as much to Scheerder, who smiled thinly. “There is a lot of grief behind closed doors in this neighborhood,” he said. Then he mentioned a news segment about Theo van Gogh on Moroccan TV, and an interview it had featured with a Moroccan immigrant in Amsterdam. I asked Scheerder what the man had said. He thought for a moment and spoke softly: “He said that his death was just, and that he was punished by God.”