How the left was lost

<strong>Murder in Amsterdam: the death of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance</strong>

Ian B

The authors of two of the most original 9/11 books hit a nerve because they had that rare ability to describe a fact we didn't want to see even though it was in front of our noses. Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism and Ian Buruma's Occidentalism (co-written with Avishai Margalit) said we were up against fascism. The cults of death, contempt for soft and mediocre democracies, fear of women and Jewish conspiracy theories of Islamism and Ba'athism continued the traditions of the European ultra right. What they wrote was indisputable - if you look on the internet at the Hamas constitution you will find paragraphs that Adolf Hitler might have written - but remains unsayable in polite society to this day.

Both have moved on from sweeping accounts of the mutation of totalitarian ideas to specific histories. Buruma takes the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamist assassin to examine the integration of Muslims into Holland, while Berman writes on how the best of the radical generation of 1968 coped with the second Iraq war. Both writers have managed the switch from broad canvases to miniature portraits with aplomb.

Buruma is Dutch, and the first of the many pleasures of his examination of the crisis in modern Holland is his ability to draw the reader into a country just across the sea about which we know disgracefully little. As a good liberal, he can sympathise with Moroccan immigrants and persuade them to speak to a white stranger. But as a native, he also understands that Holland is not quite the easygoing, prosperous society that the tourists imagine. The roots of Dutch liberalism are shallow. Well into the 1960s, conservative Protestantism dominated the national culture. Buruma shows that Muslim immigration pushed the fantastically vituperative van Gogh and at least a part of the Dutch left into the appalled realisation that they were going to have to fight the old battles for free speech and the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again. Interestingly, given his anti-fascist pedigree, Buruma won't go along with them. He doesn't quite say it, but he implies that it is one thing to make a stand against the ayatollahs' Iran or al-Qaeda in the Middle East, and quite another to take on the same ideas at home when they are found in a minority community that is already vulnerable and often powerless.

This insight gets to the heart of our current dilemma. Suppose there had been one million Germans in Britain in the 1930s, most of them at the bottom of the heap and all of them the potential victims of racism. Suppose only a few were actual Nazis, but many others either sympathised vaguely with Hitler's demands that the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles be lifted or were pushed back into a German identity by the constant harping of the rest of society on the Nazi menace. The liberal left of the day would have feared inciting racism if they joined the chorus, and found it far harder to oppose Hitler consistently.

Anxiety about causing offence, however, brings with it the danger of creating an imaginary, communalist bloc - the Muslims, in our case - and betraying the very people who have most right to expect your support.

For all his subtlety and seriousness, Buruma falls into the trap and is uncomfortable with brown-skinned people who take ideas of human freedom too literally. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose film for van Gogh on the treatment of Muslim women provoked his murder, tells him that there can be no colour bar on feminist freedoms, Buruma says that "one can't help sensing that in her battle for secularism, there are hints of zealousness, echoes perhaps of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood". There is a revealing slipperiness in that sentence: the use of "one can't help sensing" instead of "I think"; and the deft deployment of a "perhaps" to slip in the slur that those who believe in the emancipation of women are the moral equivalents of those who would keep them subjugated. Murder in Amsterdam is well written, well researched and often wise, but a faint whiff of intellectual cowardice rises from its pages none the less.

Not even Paul Berman's enemies would accuse him of ducking a fight. If you haven't read him yet, you have missed the bracing experience of confronting the most fluent New York in tellectual writing today. Power and the Idealists is a follow-up to his Tale of Two Utopias. But whereas the first book was a generally optimistic account of how the 1960s generation had broken restraints on human sexuality and undermined the apparently unending dictatorship of the Soviet empire, the sequel is far darker. The second Iraq war has forced him to reassess the moral values of his class of 1968.

He begins with an apparently straightforward account of Joschka Fischer's long march from the German far left to government. The pacifist ended up giving the support of his Green Party to the wars to stop Slobodan Milosevic because, like so many of the best of his contemporaries, memories of Nazism haunted him. Along with Bernard Kouchner, the inspirational founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the great United Nations servant whom Islamists murdered in Baghdad, he had concluded that the liberal left had a duty to protect the victims of oppression. Iraq blew that apart, of course. Berman knows all the good reasons for opposing the war, but when he dutifully criticises the Bush administration I sense that his heart isn't in it. The failure of Fischer and so many other 1968 radicals to challenge the neo-conservatives with a left-wing argument that included solidarity with the victims of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda astonishes him, and rightly so: it was astonishing.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: a nation under siege