Sunday, September 4, 2011

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, by Ian Buruma

In this short and reasoned treatise, Ian Buruma addresses a central issue of democracy, namely the separation of church and state, from a historical, social and political perspective.

The book is divided into three main parts. In the first, Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals, Buruma juxtaposes the experiences in Europe and in America, providing an insightful analysis of what separates—and unites—the old and the new continent, including the role of born-again evangelical Christians in American politics. His conclusion, perhaps surprisingly, is that the gulf between ‘secular’ Europe and more traditionally religious America is not as large as it often is made to be. Buruma writes: “Our histories are not the same and we have different notions of who we are. But everywhere people are trying to cope with the confusions of a fast-changing world by reaching for fixed—and quite often newly made up—identities based on race, religion, or national culture” (p. 46). This summarizes one of the main theses in the book: that religious fervor must be understood not in theological, but in social and political terms.

The second part of the book, Oriental Wisdom, turns attention to China and Japan. He draws parallels and explains differences in history that led to different outcomes. Buruma is particularly well versed in Japan’s history since the Meiji Restoration through the pre-war years until today, and this knowledge translates into a clear analysis in this book, as well as several others by him. He provides an interesting analysis of Maoism in China and Emperor worship in Japan as examples where state and spiritual authority coincided. While religion today plays a smaller role in these East Asian countries, Buruma traces the rise of a variety of cults and other religious groups, such as the Falun Gong, to the spiritual vacuum left by the collapse of Maoism in China and the prohibition of political participation by the Chinese people. Similarly in Japan the focus on chasing economic prosperity has left such a vacuum.

The final part, Enlightenment Values, focuses on how Western liberal societies should deal with the rising multiculturalism in our societies. This is a particularly balanced and coherent section of the book. Buruma draws from well-known cases that have led to the Kulturkampf in Europe, over issues such as the cultural rights (to discriminate against women or for women to wear a veil) of immigrant groups in Europe against the demands for them to integrate into the host societies and their norms. It all boils down to a confrontation between those who defend anyone’s right to stick to his or her culture of origin (with no consideration of its respect for host country values) vs. those (probably in the majority in Europe now) who want immigrants to integrate into the society. It is very interesting to follow Buruma’s argumentation around the very difficult question between people’s right to their own culture vs. respecting ‘universal’ – or at least those of the majority of people in the country – values of Enlightenment. This is a dilemma many liberals in the West face, torn between the values of freedom that we so cherish and the knee-jerk desire to respect others’ cultural values, how much at cross-purposes they might be with ours. Buruma points out how it is often the same people (many of them left leaning intellectuals) who in the 1960s and 1970s defended Third World rights against Western (cultural) imperialism that now are most worried about the spread of illiberal values into Europe through immigration from poor countries. The comparisons between the different approaches towards immigrant groups taken by the UK, Holland and France is quite illuminating.

He discusses at some length problems related, especially, to the integration of Muslims (both immigrant and those born there) into the European society. One interesting example is the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who by now is a talk show star in the US, who having overcome her challenges in the home country of Somalia and the morally relativist Holland now fights for the rights of Muslim women to break away from the oppression of their original culture. Another case that Buruma discusses at some length is that of Salman Rushdie who earned himself a fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses and had to go into hiding as a result.

Buruma draws a clear line against terrorists and religious fundamentalists who resort to violence. “The use of violence in a democracy, for whatever reason, can only be met with force,” he states (p. 115). He recognizes that while religious orthodoxy and political extremism can be linked, they are not the same thing nor does one necessarily lead to the other. However, discussing the cases of Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch born son of Moroccan immigrants who killed the film maker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, and Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 terrorists who bombed the London underground, Buruma traces their violent terrorism and ‘religious awakening’ to the isolation and cultural rootlessness they experienced in the European countries they were born into.

Buruma concludes convincingly that the separation of state and religion is quite essential in a democracy. A well functioning democratic society does not have to share the same social or religious values as long as everybody abides by the society’s rules and laws. He also makes a valuable distinction between respecting other people, while not necessarily respecting their beliefs. “Liberal democracies are not well served by laws that limit free speech, such as laws against blasphemy or denying the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide,” he writes, and continues “(T)here are ways, however, to respect the dignity of fellow citizens without recourse to the law” (p. 123).

Ian Buruma’s book is fabulously erudite. The writing is stellar and lucid, anchored firmly in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers, such as Spinoza and Hume, as well as Tocqueville, Confucius and others. He gets to the heart of the matter without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Born in Holland from Dutch and British parents, Buruma spent a significant portion of his career in Japan and China. He now teaches at Bard College in New York. He is thus extraordinarily well placed to understand the historical and social situations in these countries located on three continents. He ends with paraphrasing Confucius: Let us leave the spirits aside, until we know how best to serve men.

No comments: