POSITION #15 - 23 August 2006 the.buggers@sea-urchin.net

The fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is seized upon by some publishers and authors to launch books that are expected to benefit from the huge media attention that the event is going to generate. It is no surprise to find a number of publications scheduled for September 2006 that deal with "terrorism". Terrorism sells. Cynical, but true. We haven't forgotten, though, who designed and marketed the current "terrorism" brand in the first place. The Pentagon, the White House, and their secret services have used it from the start to justify their aggressive power plays and ideologies both at home and abroad, and to serve US corporate interests, especially in the oil and war business. So, when a book on terrorism is published, especially at a time like this, it is useful to know what kind of publication we are dealing with. Does it use the terror brand only for commercial purposes? Does it contain some form of criticism or at least show awareness of the origin of the brand that it bears? Or is it just another contribution to the global branding of "terrorism" and consequently of "the war on terror"? We found the latter to be true of "Murder in Amsterdam" [1] by the Anglo-Dutch writer Ian Buruma, which is going to be released on the emotionally charged date of September 11th.

"Murder in Amsterdam" deals with the murder of Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh by Dutch Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri in November 2004. According to the blurb Van Gogh's murder was "the emblematic crime of our moment (...), the exemplary tale of our age, the story of what happens when political Islam collides with the secular West and tolerance finds its limits". No mean event then, this murder, a matter of global significance. Or, as Buruma sums up in his account: "First came the Salman Rushdie affair (...) Then New York was attacked. And now Theo van Gogh, ‘our' Salman Rushdie, was dead". One of the most striking features of this book is indeed the aggrandisement of the event that it deals with and the people involved. Comparing Theo van Gogh with Salman Rushdie, or his murder with the 9/11 attacks, of course, does not testify to clear judgment but to wishful thinking and the desire to be part of global politics. Aggrandisement reaches the point of ridiculousness not only in the portrait of Van Gogh ("great-grandnephew of Vincent and iconic European provocateur", "a provocative child of the sixties, an heir of the Provos"), but also in that of his friend, Somali-born, ex-Muslim politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali ("delicate African beauty", "public defender of the Enlightenment", "Hearing Ayaan talk reminded me sometimes of Margaret Thatcher: the same unyielding intelligence"). Provos? Enlightenment? Margaret Thatcher? Come again, Mr Buruma? [2]

Central to the composition of the book are the portraits of four protagonists: Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Pim Fortuyn, and Mohammed Bouyeri. Buruma paints Van Gogh's portrait with the filmmaker's native Wassenaar in the background: "a verdant suburb of rolling lawns, gravel drives and large villas", where "pink roses were still in bloom" and "the rippling water was covered in white lilies". Hirsi Ali is met in Café de Flore on the Parisian left bank, where "young men and women go by in their thin summer clothes, holding hands, kissing, and generally carrying on in pursuit of private pleasures". These settings form a stark contrast with Buruma's sketches of Dutch "dish cities", districts "mostly inhabited by people of Turkish and Moroccan descent, wired to the Islamic world through satellite TV". Mohammed Bouyeri, who killed Van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, pinned a death-ridden message to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to his corpse, and then tried to get himself killed in a shoot-out with the police [3], grew up in one of these districts: "a heavily Muslim area that had become notorious for its high crime rate", a place where "a few young men hung around a shabby-looking kebab joint" and "women in black headscarves carried plastic bags from a local supermarket". Buruma visits the dish cities, "hotbeds of religious bigotry" as one of his friends calls them, at great risk. They are either seen from Hirsi Ali's bulletproof car when Buruma meets her on a second occasion, or from the car of Van Gogh's friend Gijs van de Westelaken while another friend, Theodor Holman, jokes about being assassinated too.

Over this caricatural landscape Buruma drapes the low and grey skies of Dutch Calvinism and post-war guilt, to which he attributes the stifling political correctness and penchant for "watery political compromise" of this country. They are skies against which the colourful and tall figures of Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali, and politician Pim Fortuyn stand out heroically, and that provide shelter for drab little puritan losers like Mohammed Bouyeri and Volkert van der Graaf, a radical animal rights activist who murdered Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Buruma is at his best in his portrait of Pim Fortuyn. His report of how this "master of emotional kitsch", "peddler of nostalgia", and "show-off with the gaudy style of a showbiz impresario" could rise in popularity on an anti-Muslim agenda and financed by louche businessmen is faithful enough. But there's more to Buruma's sketch of this populist politician than an accurate account. Fortuyn's openly professed homosexuality is emphasized as having added to his popularity and the "mystique of a man who came from nowhere – from Heaven perhaps – to save his countrymen". It's a silly idea, of course, that only serves as a pretext under which Buruma can slip notions of sexual liberation and activity into his portrait of this "shaven-headed dandy", this "walking penis", just like he does, albeit less conspicuously, in his portraits of Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali.

In his earlier essay "Extremism: the loser's revenge", subtitled "Can sexual inadequacy or deprivation turn angry young men into killers?" [4] Buruma had already staged Mohammed Bouyeri as an example of a sexually deprived, suicidal murderer. The essay draws upon the theme of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's "The Radical Loser" [5], which Buruma admires but finds lacking in one thing: a sexual factor, "the psychology of the great masturbator, the murderous gay thug, the drooping despot". At first sight Buruma's point seems fair enough: who would want to turn away from the possibility that sexual frustation makes up part of the psychology of suicidal murderers? But it turns out to be no more than simplistic and politically biased dabbling in psychoanalysis when combined with some of Buruma's other statements on suicide violence, such as: "Even those who have good reason to blame their poverty on harsh forms of U.S.-backed capitalism do not normally blow themselves up in public places to kill the maximum number of unarmed civilians. We do not hear of suicide bombers from the slums of Rio or Bangkok". [6] Or this: "Sexual deprivation may be a factor in the current wave of suicidal violence, unleashed by the Palestinian cause as well as revolutionary Islamism. The tantalising prospect of having one's pick of the loveliest virgins in paradise is deliberately dangled in front of young men trained for violent death". [7] And finally: "Access to MTV, the internet, DVDs and global advertising reinforces the notion that westerners live in a degenerate garden of sinful delights. This makes the lot of millions of young Arab men even harder to bear, and can provoke a mixture of rage and envy". [8] They are tellingly generalizing and patronizing statements that have nothing to do with psychoanalysis whatsoever, and seem oblivious of the standard cultural studies of Sigmund Freud and Herbert Marcuse.

Though not openly expressed and masked by the portraits of a number of minor and hybrid characters, the main theme of "Murder in Amsterdam" is again the opposition of enlightened and sexually liberated westerners to backward and sexually deprived Muslims. In itself Mohammed Bouyeri's portrait in "Murder in Amsterdam" may seem pretty objective, in combination with those of Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali, and Fortuyn, the picture of a drab loser and wanker emerges, whose envy of the sexual fulfilment of his opponents turned into murderous rage. It's a familiar opposition, seen and heard many times before in the "war on terror" propaganda. "Murder in Amsterdam" is another conscious attempt to mobilise feelings of superiority in the West and sexualize the agression against Muslim states. It's a two-dimensional cartoon, complete with the stereotypical liberated women and gays. There isn't all that much difference between the drift of Buruma's book and the military pornography produced in Abu Ghraib. Mr Buruma, grow a beard! Ms Hirsi Ali, bring out your leash! [9]

[1] Ian Buruma – Murder in Amsterdam (The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance), The Penguin Press, New York. All quotations in this pamphlet were taken from the uncorrected advance manuscript of the book and may differ from the final printed version.
[2] See our pamphlet #7 on Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn.
[3] See our pamphlet #10 on the murder of Van Gogh.
[4] Ian Buruma – Extremism: the loser's revenge, The Guardian, February 25th, 2006.
[5] Hans Magnus Enzensberger - “Der radikale Verlierer”, Der Spiegel, November 7th, 2005 (English version here)
[6] Ian Buruma – The Origins of Occidentalism, the Chronicle of Higher Education, February 6th, 2004.
[7] Ian Buruma – Extremism: the loser's revenge, The Guardian, February 25th, 2006.
[8] Ian Buruma – Extremism: the loser's revenge, The Guardian, February 25th, 2006.
[9] See our pamphlet #4 on the Abu Ghraib photographs.

Also see: * MISSED ENCOUNTERS * The Buggers realise fictitious encounters between revolutionaries, artists, musicians, and freaks. Finally they meet!
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