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''Defending one's character is not an intellectual exercise'' - an interview with Ian Buruma, author of Taming the Gods

Author Ian Buruma reflects on his recent book and delves into his findings on religion and its impact on democracy.
Farid Boussaid Jonathan Gharraie
27 July 2010

In his recent book,Taming the Gods (February, 2010), based on lectures given at Princeton University in November 2008, Ian Buruma looks at the tensions between religion and politics in America, China, Japan, and Europe, and the violent passions inspired by religion that must be tamed in order to make democracy work. 

The author reconsiders the story of radical Islam in contemporary Europe, from the case of Salman Rushdie to the murder of Theo van Gogh. He exposes the follies of the current culture war between defenders of ‘western values’ and ‘multiculturalists,’ and argues that the creation of a democratic European Islam is not only possible, but necessary. Comparing Europe and the United States, Buruma asks why so few Europeans and so many Americans see religion as a help to democracy. For eight years the American president was a born-again Christian, backed by well-organized evangelicals who often seemed intent on erasing the church-state divide. Presenting a challenge to dogmatic believers and dogmatic secularists alike, Buruma argues that religion and democracy can be compatible - but only if religious and secular authorities are kept firmly apart. 

In 2007, Buruma penned a feature-length profile of Tariq Ramadan for The New York Times Magazine that presented the scholar as a cagey but promising asset to the liberal cause in the Islamic world. That piece prompted a 28,000-word riposte from Paul Berman in The New Republic, accusing his liberal opponents, in the wake of the Iraq war, of sacrificing their principles for expediency. In particular Berman accuses those who rushed to the defence of Salman Rushdie of failing to offer wholehearted support today to people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and Muslim apostate. Berman’s book about the ensuing controversy, The Flight of the Intellectuals, was also published earlier this year.

Farid Boussaid: Can you summarise for us your intellectual journey, specifically the experiences that have shaped your present views?

Ian Buruma: I studied Chinese at Leiden University at a time, under Mao Zedong, when you couldn’t go to China. It was a little like studying the other side of the moon. So, stimulated by Japanese theatre and film, I went to Tokyo instead. Then I spent seven years as a journalist based in Hong Kong, travelling around Asia. I didn’t want to be seen as a Japan specialist: I wanted to have a broader view of things in Asia in particular. Finally, I decided that I didn’t want to be an explainer of Asia either - so I came back to the West but retained my interest in non-Western affairs.

Obviously all the tensions arising in our own time from immigration are of interest to me because this process brings out all the elements that I’ve been thinking about and writing about for years, such as cultural conflict, prejudices and relations between East and West. Even though Taming the Gods might seem to be somewhat of an odd departure it actually fits quite well into this framework. The reason it’s rather a thin book - which people have remarked on - is that it is based on three lectures which were given at Princeton University. That’s the genesis of it. 

FB: Do you believe that the fact that you left the Netherlands at a certain age and a certain time means that you missed out on some aspects of the parallel journeys of your contemporaries? 

Jonathan Gharraie : For example, you don’t seem to have made the ideological about-turn which for many followed from the events of 9/11… 

IB: Yes, September 11, 2001 changed a lot of minds. But also the Rushdie case and also Bosnia. Before NATO went into Bosnia, people who were suspicious of any initiative whatsoever from the US argued for intervention, and it was people on the Right who argued against intervention on the grounds of national sovereignty. I think that’s when a lot of people on the Left moved closer to the position that they currently adopt which is almost indistinguishable from neo-conservatism.

If I haven’t followed suit, this has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t live in Holland. I’ve never been on the Left, and in fact many people who often criticise me for being a Leftist multi-culturalist were themselves on the Left.  

FB: That’s the irony. So one of the reasons you were never attracted to Third Worldism was that you had actually been to that part of the world, and seen Maoism in action? 

IB: Yes I did, and I saw what it’s about

JG: Let’s talk now about Islam in Europe, and especially the Enlightenment principle of the separation between church and state, which has become a major bone of contention. You cite some authorities who argue that customs and traditions obviously related to particular texts, may have some role to play in the lives of religious minorities. With regards to Islam, how much scope do you see for that? 

IB: Well, I quoted Spinoza in this context, who thought that religion is a good thing if it makes people behave better. You could say that Islam gives many people a sense of ethics and a morality which anchors them in their communities. That is not something to be lightly dismissed. Now, in cases where the ethics - which are not always religious at source, but have to do with tribal or cultural traditions - are in tension with the law, as in honour-killings… that is a different matter. I’m not sympathetic to the German court which thought it was a mitigating circumstance, in the case where the daughter of a Turkish family was murdered by either the brother or the fiancée, because it was held to be a matter of honour. I don’t think it should be regarded as a mitigating circumstance. That is an example of multi-culturalism gone wild.  

FB: What sort of customs and traditions could have a positive role? 

IB: For example, respect for elders, a certain idea of family life, and a degree of humility. It’s not an easy question to answer specifically. But one reason why people have a faith, whether it’s Christian or Muslim or anything else, is that it helps them with things that we fear – such as death. Not having grown up with religion, I would never argue that religion is a necessity and that without it you cannot grapple with these issues. But religion helps many people to cope with such concerns. It adds a symbolic dimension to their lives and a sense of meaning. In that regard, it can have a positive influence simply because it helps people feel more secure and when they feel secure, they can be better citizens.  

FB: Your book is divided into three parts: one on America, the second section on China and Japan and the third on Islam in Europe. You did not devote space either to multi-religious India, or to the third Abrahamic religion, Judaism.

IB: I have written about the BJP in India, so I could have included it. But I decided to concentrate on the examples in Asia that I knew best and to write about India would have been more complicated. It was a matter of space. Since it was only three lectures and not a huge book, there had to be limitations.

As for Judaism, I don’t think that there has ever been a source of great tension between Judaism and democracy. In Israel, just like the Amish in America, the Ultra-Orthodox have opted out: they don’t serve in the army, they live in their own enclaves in Jerusalem, they don’t recognise the secular state at all. These are communities that have decided to live their lives more or less in isolation from the rest of society. But societies themselves can live with that. What they can’t live with are those people who essentially think that secular society is sinful and who decide that they need to attack it violently.

Diaspora Jews have been accused of being internationalist and therefore not being loyal to the nation in which they lived. Accusations of a double loyalty became a real issue after the founding of the State of Israel, because before that secular Jews were almost a hundred per cent loyal to the countries where they lived, except for some who subscribed, to some abstract idea of the Worker’s State. But this is less a question of Judaism as a religion, as it is of the way that a minority is perceived by the majority…

JG: The rootless cosmopolitan. 

IB: Yes, the rootless cosmopolitan. In Holland for example, wherever the double passport issue comes up, this is not so much a religious issue, but one of prejudice against minorities. 

FB: Are there any similarities between the experience of the Jewish diaspora and the Muslim minorities in the West, with their connection to the global Islamic community of the umma?  

IB: There are of course parallels. The umma is not a tribal concept: it’s religious. In the case of the Jews when they were suspected of double loyalties, the idea was much more that they had a tribal loyalty: “They only stick to themselves. They only care about Jews. They don’t really care about Holland or France.” If there were a religious dimension to that, it coincided with the tribal one. But the suspicion of unpopular minorities, whether they are loyal or so on - of course it’s similar, to the extent that they are always forced to prove their loyalty even when it’s not really relevant.

JG: May I ask you about some of the dramatis personae of your recent writings, specifically Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan? What merit is there in their work? They seem to perform a structural role in your writings as they do in the work of other writers. They are invoked to shape an argument. If they were to have a public dialogue – obviously the public sphere would have to have shifted quite a lot for that to have happened – do you think there would be any benefits to such a conversation?  You say in Taming the Gods that “it should be possible to see merit in both Hirsi Ali’s critique of religious bigotry and Tariq Ramadan’s attempt to reconcile Islam with democratic practices.” At the moment, they seem to cancel one another out in the hands of most commentators.

IB: Well, yes, there might be benefits, because I don’t for one minute think that they are utterly opposed to each other. Unless you assume that Tariq Ramadan is a 100 per cent liar and everything he says is disingenuous, both of them at least claim to be loyal to liberal democracy. Both of them have said things that might give you some reason to doubt their understanding of it, but at least both of them would claim that. Tariq Ramadan, despite his famous statements about stoning is not in favour of oppressing women or violence against women. The politics are not so different that they are irreconcilable or that there could not be any dialogue.

The real difference is that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an convert to atheism. She genuinely believes that religion per se is the problem and that as long as you have Islam, liberal democracy is going to be under threat. Whereas Ramadan thinks that this should be the source of a stronger liberal democracy.  

JG: More recently she’s been talking about the attraction of Christianity… 

IB: Yes, but I think that’s nuts.  Melanie Philips talking about Islam as not only ‘a terrorist threat’, but as ‘a threat to the Christian foundations of our civilisation’, is idiotic enough. But Hirsi Ali’s notion that the only solution is for all Muslims to become atheists, like herself, or  - as she’s arguing now - that they should become Christians, is nuts. It’s not a serious argument.  

JG: These exhortations marginalise her in the real debate. Instead, she herself has become a cause célèbre - would you agree? -  taken up by people like Paul Berman? Would you say that this has disfigured the public conversation about what’s really at stake when one compares the positions of such figures? 

IB: Yes. What I meant in the sentences that Berman has taken issue with is that neither of them should be dismissed, and neither of them should be above criticism. Such interventions have disfigured the conversation because anything you say in favour of Ramadan is now taken to mean that you are not serious about Western liberties, Western civilisation, freedom of speech and so on. And any criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali means exactly the same thing. 

JG: The Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami wrote in an essay for The Nation that this debate is about Muslims, but not with them. Would you say that it is one of your aims to try to engage with people who have been excluded? 

IB: Less so with this book than in Murder in Amsterdam where I went out of my way to talk to immigrants, whether they were religious or not, because their voices were rather muted. People would quote the murder victim, Theo Van Gogh himself, or the Dutch politicians or friends of Theo and so on. Nobody would bother to talk to the Dutch Moroccans and Turks they were discussing. Nobody asked for their views. It wasn’t so much that I wrote the book to try and influence the immigrants, but I certainly wanted their voices to be an important part of what I wrote. 

FB: How would you characterise the debate as it stands now? 

IB: I would say that positions have hardened. My efforts to avoid being polemical have become more difficult because the polemics now dominate the debate and they tend to divide everybody into friends and enemies.  

FB: So would you say that moderation is not a virtue anymore? 

IB: No. In fact, in the eyes of some people it shows weakness: it is seen as a cop-out. That, of course, is something that liberals have always been accused of. In Europe, the positions have hardened: in America, they are hardening. At the same time, there are still a lot of people who are trying to talk sense. There’s nothing else you can do. 

JG: It seems that one of the main things that Paul Berman is objecting to in The Flight of the Intellectuals is your tone and the register of your language. This is something that you’ve written about yourself, particularly in your literary criticism. In Murder in Amsterdam you refer to an, “elevation of bluntness to a kind of moral ideal” which you see as being characteristically Dutch. Might this debate about Islam and democracy be about one’s tone of voice as much as anything else? 

IB: Yes, but I don’t think that it’s only about that. It’s also about real positions that people have staked out. Berman objects to my position because he was himself on the Left. He was an anarchist at one point and he is used to taking very radical positions. This means that he views those who don’t agree with him as not simply people with different views, but as enemies - people who are either in bad faith, or unprincipled. To repeat, this is a traditional critique that radicals from either the Right or the Left of Liberals will make, because Liberals seem to them to be wishy-washy. Part of being Liberal is always to try to see the other side of the question. If you take a radical position, then to see the other side of the question is a sign of weakness and of not sticking to your principles.  

JG: But what do you think about cultural forms of tactlessness? – I remember you once referred to V.S. Naipaul’s use of picong, the Trinidadian form of aggressive banter… 

IB: Well, they can have a use, but in Naipaul’s case they’re also a source of humour. Provoking people in a humorous way is not necessarily a bad thing because it provokes thought.  

JG: Is that also true of Theo Van Gogh? 

IB: I’m not against satire or humour or provocation. But I think he was less gifted, less profound and less funny than Naipaul. There is some merit to that polemical tradition, except that Van Gogh often didn’t draw on it to be amusing or to provoke people’s thinking - he did it as a form of personal abuse. That’s not usually the case with Naipaul.

FB: Do you see a certain sea-change in what we consider to be acceptable in the use of irony? 

IB: When people use satire to ridicule particular traditions or religions, they have in the past usually deployed it in relation to their own culture. So when people invoke Voltaire’s attack on Christianity now and ask ‘why can’t you do the same thing with Islam?’ – it’s worth remembering that Voltaire was criticising his own Church and country. If a Muslim uses satire or ridicule in relation to Islam, it’s not quite the same thing as when a non-Muslim does it.

I don’t think opinions, or tone, should be regulated by law. Manners are informally negotiated. It is not the same thing for a Gentile to make fun of Jews as it is for a Jew. If you think of Holland - satirical literature about Calvinism or Catholicism is usually written by people with backgrounds in those communities. But people easily forget how divided societies once were. And so, all those things have to be renegotiated and new forms of getting along with each other have to be devised. None of it is simple.

FB: Do you think that because of the nature of the debate, people will hold back from criticising their own communities? 

IB: Well, the more the majority puts pressure on the minorities, the more defensive minorities will become. It becomes a form of disloyalty to criticise. But if you are serious about the necessity for Muslims to become more self-critical, which is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali says she wants - and I agree with her - I think that it would be good for Muslims to make fun of themselves. However, for their part, people from non-Muslim majorities should refrain from blanket hostility or from saying things like, “the problem with 9/11 is that it is not just a terrorist movement, it is Islam per se”. If you say things like that then you can’t blame Muslims for feeling defensive.  

JG: There seems to have been an attempt from both the Left and the Right to move away from the language of diversity and multiculturalism, to ‘-majority reassurance’ to echo David Goodhart. Now, this partly addresses the impact on local communities of immigration from Europe and beyond – do you think this means that multi-culturalism has expired? 

IB: Well, I think that a certain kind of ideological multi-culturalism has expired. A celebration of diversity is not the same thing as saying that people “ought to stick to their own culture, and that if they don’t, it’s a form of colonialism…”. There were people who did talk like that, suggesting that any form of integration or assimilation is a betrayal. That sort of stuff is pretty much dead. But people have now swung too far in the opposite direction. Now there is too much insistence on assimilation and less emphasis on integration.  

JG: On integration, Jon Cruddas, candidate for Chairman of the UK’s Labour Party, has been talking about the covenant between the working classes and political parties and about using ‘intermediary institutions’ like local government and churches to inculcate that. Conservatives such as Iain Duncan Smith and Philip Blond are also talking about using religion to reach people as citizens…

FB: And Job Cohen, the Mayor of Amsterdam too – 

JG: Is that at all workable?  

IB: Well, I can see pros and cons. One reason why it might be useful is that in order for people to be good citizens you have to somehow mobilize them and make them feel a part of the larger society, even if it’s only to vote. Religious institutions, like other forms of collective life, can be one form of mobilizing people. When people were feeling vulnerable, unwanted and excluded, for Job Cohen to go to mosques and talk to imams, was the right thing for him to do - because it showed that the mayor cared about these people.

But if this is the only form of mobilization, it leaves all the non-believers out. Maybe that’s not a huge problem because in this case, those who don’t feel any tie to religious institutions are not the problem. They are secular citizens and feeling excluded is not an issue for them.

The challenge we have is precisely to get people who are religious to be a part of civil society and the public sphere. Berman accuses me of championing Ramadan while criticising Hirsi Ali, which is not the case. I’m not saying that one is right: one is wrong. What I am saying is that if you want to influence religious Muslims - and it is important to influence them because they are the ones who could possibly be radicalised - then the advocacy of someone who is a believer and who also believes in liberal democracy would carry more weight than the opinions of a known atheist. Berman’s accusation is a serious misrepresentation of what I am arguing, which is not about being right or wrong to be religious. It is about efficacy in promoting democracy among Muslim citizens.

FB: Some people think religion can be a liberating force, if you use one school of religion to counter another. Take what Eric Hobsbawm would call the “invention of tradition” in Morocco. Sufism, always present in Morocco, is now getting more state attention and funding as a counterweight to what is seen as the imported and more extreme strands of Islam… 

IB: Yes, that’s one way. These things are always much more complicated than a polemicist can suggest.

To use an example that gets us away from Islam - if you look at the role played by Christianity in black American communities, there are good elements and there are bad. You can say: “This is an escape from reality, people who are poor and oppressed are being exploited. You give them their churches and it’s their great escape from reality.” That is indeed one angle, it is true. On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement was very much inspired by Christianity and religion gave people a sense of self-respect, pride and indeed, the possibility of real change. I don’t see why it has to be different with Islam. 

JG: The Green Movement in Iran, inspired initially by religious reformists, may be another interesting example. Or the movement inspired by monks in Burma? 

IB: Yes. 

JG: To draw this to a close then and to return to Berman for a moment. Do you want to see your polemical debate continue for another few laps? 

IB: No, I don’t see my future in terms of endlessly debating the likes of Paul Berman on Islam. It’s one subject, but there are many subjects. Moreover, I might be more inclined to spend time arguing it if it were a proper debate between people who take different views but who agree that the final object is to approximate the truth.  

JG: The democratic way of course… 

IB: If you’re attacked for having certain opinions, you can argue about that. But if you’re attacked for moral cowardice, what do you say, “No, I’m not a moral coward”? Defending your character is not an interesting intellectual exercise.

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