Thursday, July 07, 2011

Discussing Ian Buruma's "Murder in Amsterdam"

Ian Buruma
"Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance"
288 pages
Penguin, August 2007

"There could be no better timing for a book like this" is the first thing that comes to mind when reading this book for the first time and leafing through its bulk of information, scholarship, criticism and opinions; the book is not only interesting but extremely well-written and appealing to the widest possible readership. It would be fairly easy to agree with almost every word on this book precisely because unlike most contemporary books dealing with Islam in Europe, he doesn't seem to uphold any particular opinions, therefore no one (that is, unless you're a radical Muslim) should take much offense in it if at all; to the foreigner (a term most felicitous for Europeans today) a book as such might be as informative as anything, but slightly harmless and innocuous as well, within this certain aura of disinterested sobriety typical of the textbooks that we studied in high school and during the first years of college. At the end of the book we might well be left untouched by higher forces and with rather incomplete information; in these times, when we are surrounded by such a passionate interest in dispassionate narratives, the purpose of a book such as this might be manifold. A Dutch reader might have found the book a little more interesting, had it been written in Dutch, for this would recreate some of the humour inherent to the rather theatrical situations with which we are confronted; Mr. Buruma plays a delightful devil's advocate in that he is both the Dutchman and the disinterested observator, perhaps a by-product of his rather long absence from the country as a professor of humanities at Bard College.

One could not say, though, that he is dispassionate about his topic, for clean from nationalist innuendoes that would appeal to the coffee tables of the ludicrous liberal Amsterdam intelligentsia, he is speaking with personal knowledge of the matters at hand, his lifelong friendship with Theo van Gogh, with whom he happened to grow up in privilegedmost Wassenaar at the prestigious Nederlandsch Lyceum. But it is not only van Gogh, but also long standing friendships with personalities from the realm of Dutch politics and culture, long discussions with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and interviews run with Muslim and Christian people from all walks of life in the Netherlands. He is not in the slightest, ignorant about history and the weakness of his opinions is compensated by a warm interest in understanding the situation.

I wouldn't want to gloss over his wonderfully written book as if trying to dissect a frog and exposing the ill organs, but I would like to refer to his rather consistent thoughts on the legacy of the Enlightenment and how they relate to the position of now famous speaker and writer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. There's a general opinion even among philosophers that the Enlightenment as such is indebted to the French and German versions of rationalism and the new configuration of metaphysics and scholasticism that people like Kant and Descartes shaped; thus the Enlightenment is generally understood as an intellectual and humanist force vying against the likes of the Christian religion and that would provide a human(istic), secular and non-soteriological understand of the world which would be necessary for the development of modern science and for the liberal project of politics in the modern European state.

Few people today would argue for the case that the philosophy of the Enlightenment was shaped by the cosmopolitan milieu afforded by the city of Amsterdam to the Jew Benedictus Spinoza, and a number of interrelated phenomena made possible by the particular circumstances of the Dutch Republic that would be unheard of in countries such as France and Germany, where the project of the Enlightenment was realized to its ultimate consequences. But religion, theology and Christianity were part and parcel of the project of Enlightenment politics in its original vision, unlike that for example of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom. The Enlightenment belongs in the heritage of Christian theology as a revolution, and in general lines, there could be perhaps no such a thing as an authentic secular revolution in the sense that every revolution has a built-in Messianic power unfolding therewith, in the most humble and urgent attempt to radically change everyday life; there's no revolutionary instinct without a certain salvific intuition.

The Enlightenment was a project born and brestfed by Christianity and it was by no means atheistic. What was really atheistic in the conundrum of European intellectual history was the theology that arose as a consequence of the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant (far more than Hegel) under the rubric of rational and historical theology, with its greatest proponents coming from within German protestantism, in which the age-old Christian mysteries that natural theology had grappled with, were replaced with a concern with both ethics and history as the receptories and fullfilments of the Christian truth. Much more Christian were in turn the deliberately godless philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that in turn were working so forcefully in denying the power of God that were ultimately its most passionate romantic searchers. Without the historical and intellectual background this is precisely the point in which Mr. Buruma has completely failed in understand the current debate over Islam in Europe and where Mrs. Hirsi Ali has demonstrated not only an acute understanding but also a practical approach to the problem.

In its original setting (certainly this was the case in Spinoza's Amsterdam and in Kant's Koenigsberg) the Enlightenment was seen a break in the European traditions and frown upon with suspicion by the preacher and noble alike, thus it could have formed what today we would call, a "Green Party" full of ecclectic advocates of freedom from serfhood and ecclesiastic politics. But soon enough Christianity was unsurprisingly receptive to the same very ideals and a certain paradox took over: France had a revolution without a reformation (a new social order without a new faith order) and Germany in turn, a reformation but not a revolution (a new faith order without a new social order); the overlap became disastrous for both as soon as it became apparent that the technical possibilities afforded by the Industrial Revolution didn't match in anyway the monolithic structure of the French polity or the feudal social structure of Prussia. The Kingdom of the Netherlands, however, appeared to have solved that problem. The struggle between the House of Orange (backed by the Dutch Calvinist Church) and the Regenten, the powerful aristocrats, many of their enterprises financed by the wealthy Amsterdam Jewry, seemed apparently resolved on the ground of their mutual economic interests, molded and melded into the activities of the world-famous Company of the West Indies that traveled the whole world as a freelance mercenary colonial power.

The cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam had erected the "pillars" of "our society" based on difference rather than on the imposition of a certain hegemony and this turned out to be convenient for all. The history of the Kingdom of the Netherlands however, was nowhere as stable (at least in the course of the 18th and 19th century) as let's say that of France or Prussia, let alone Austro-Hungary. The liberality in the management of public and political affairs turned out to be a gain in moments when the Dutch had to defend themselves from occupying powers or had to vye with them in order to establish sovereignity. The basic problem with the Enlightenment (this time not of the Spinozian but of the Cartesian fashion) as has been pointed out by many victims and victimizers of the Enlightenment process itself, better worded nowhere than in the political philosophy of Hegel, is that it made the assumption that thinking was pressumptionless and that the critique of religion and philosophy, would be subject to criticism itself, both by religion and by criticism itself. The aporias inherent to this model of tradition, continuity and history are nowhere else seen than in the current debate about the Enlightenment in the Netherlands.

After having surrendered to la critique pour la critique, the colonial past of European nations, blended in together with the memory (or rather of lack of memory) of the Holocaust and the socialist inclinations of the political movements in the Postwar. The 20th century was welcome with less thrill than frill, and the peaceful armonious order of Imperial Europe was shattered by the World Wars and topped by the Nazi occupation and murderous plans. In Postwar politics, tolerance became the rule over Europe, precisely because we should not allow this to happen ever again, no more Totalitarianism, executions, anti-Semitism, forced labor. The foundation of a European community of states (no longer national) seemed to reflect the overtly optimism of that generation which as of today, we see, turned out to be no optimism at all, but rather the inability to cope with the realities unvealed by the horrible past. It seemed however that Europe was on the way to prosperity again and that it would be possible to wait until less exasperating times, in order to have some pending talks about Jews and the like. At the time the European states began to disengage from each and every one of their collonial bastions and were forced to receive the new immigrants with smiley faces and happiest prospects about the multicultural future.

But today the lie has been spotted and the dream no longer seems true. But tolerance continues, we are unable to defend ourselves, and as much as Europeans are not willing to let go of the nations, which are still definitely the major factor in shaping identities within the independent states, on the other hand, the new immigrants, particularly from the Arab world, have failed to live up to the expectations of their host countries. But because we had colonies and we sent the Jews to their deaths and no longer believe in God, we have to tolerate it all, because human rationality overtime will persuade these angry immigrants about the wonders of our enlightened societies. You, Mr. Buruma, understood this very well, but the solutions you propose, or rather, the non-solutions you point out to, are oblivious of a fact that Mrs. Hirsi Ali has got right, precisely because she belongs to what could be called, the first generation of Enlightened Muslims. She knows that Europe was defined by Christianity in the middle ages as a political-cultural continuum and that this God, which the Enlightenment apparently beheaded, is more alive today than ever and is a living reality for millions of Muslims, Jews and Christians.

It is not a matter of turning the Enlightenment into the household name for a new conservative world order, for these terms, such as conservative and liberal, are today as ineffectual as they were in the end of the 19th century; what is being dealt with here is that Europe stands a millenium ahead of Islam in terms of revolutions and enlightenments, therefore it is not merely a paradox but the most obvious symptom of the Enlightenment's Christian legacy and the cultural tiredness derived from the nihilistic sources of this tolerance and lack of prejudice that has never really existed but that functioned more like an invention of the non-remembrance of the crucial chapters of the European past. Nowadays things seem a little more complicated because it is not only that the great majority of non-white Dutch citizens do not feel at home here but that we haven't been able to make them feel at home and that is certainly our problem.

Further than that, if we don't want to define Dutchness on the basis of blood alone, then we have to rely on the rule of the law, which applies to us all, and whenever a Dutchman breaks the law, he has to be punished for it without the emotional and paternalistic and cultural relativistic considerations of our intoxicatingly dull times. This is the only way in which we will survive as an organized society; whoever is not willing to accept the law of this country and who believes he can surrender to his own divine decrees at the expense of the Dutch, should not be allowed to remain in this land, and when a citizen already, he must sit in prison for as long as it is necessary and without the motherly care of a system he is bent on destroying. This is not a matter of nationalism, but of the most basic common sense, constitutional common sense, and if this is not so, then we need a new constitution. This is what Mrs. Hirsi Ali understood so well, and which people like Fortyun and Wilders are not helping further, for they appeal only to the masses which are politically passive and rather lazy and ignorant. The masses however, can define history, and this is the legacy of Totalitarianism. We have to take them seriously, otherwise it will be us who will be soon going to the sand dunes to mourn over the lost constitution.

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