Big Think Interview With Ian Buruma

A conversation with the Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College.
  • Transcript


Question: When did the Christian right become a serious factor in U.S. politics?

Ian Buruma: It's always been around, but I think it was under Ronald Reagan that it began to be a sort of serious organization. Before that these same people existed, but they weren’t politically so well organized and I think it was under the Reagan Administration that they realized that there was a vast source of voters to tap into and, from the point of view of the Christians, to influence policy.

Could a European conservative Christian movement develop in response to Muslim immigration?

Ian Buruma: I don’t think it’s impossible that there will be a rise of Christianity in Europe as a reaction.  I don’t think you can see great proof of it so far, although there is much talk now of sort of the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of western or European civilization, which you didn’t hear so much about before as though the Jews and the Christians have always been such brothers in arms, so there are signs that it could happen and but not yet on a very large scale.

Why hasn’t the U.S. reacted toward Middle Eastern immigrants as Western Europe has?

Ian Buruma:  There are I think various reasons for that.  One is that most immigrants from the Middle East in the United States tend to be more middle class, better educated, many of them are Christians and they’re not concentrated so much as the European cities.  In the European cities the Muslim immigrants on the whole are from village cultures, not very well educated.  They came over as guest workers and they’re very concentrated. So if you go even many provincial towns and countries like the Netherlands you’ll suddenly see a very large number of people in headscarves and beards and so on in a way that you don’t really see anywhere in the United States.  Here it is just one minority amongst many.

Why don’t Western conservatives have more common ground with Islamic traditionalists?

Ian Buruma: Well, if by conservatives you mean Christian conservatives I think because there is historical antagonism towards Islam, but it’s necessarily entirely true that there is no common ground.  I think for example when the book, Salman Rushdie’s book, was burned there were actually conservatives in the West who had total sympathy with the Muslims and thought he had it coming and ran in favor of tightening up blasphemy laws, and so it’s not always true that there is no common ground.

Could the U.S. division between church and state crumble in the near future?

Ian Buruma:  I’m not so sure.  I think it’s… the system is fairly robust and… but it has always been contested as far back as Jefferson, and he was accused by Christians of being a man of Satan who was not recognizing that the United States was a Christian country, whereas he of course saw it as the State, as a secular state, so it has been contested from the beginning.

Is religion in any way a threat to democracy?

Ian Buruma:  I think you can’t really answer that question by yes or no because it depends on what kind of religion, under what circumstances and so on.  It’s not necessarily a threat to democracy.  What is a threat to democracy is if the authority of organized religion starts to… gets mixed up in what should be secular politics.

How religious are you personally?

Ian Buruma:  Well I never had a religion.  Neither of my parents were religious, so I grew up with no religion at all, so I suppose I’m an agnostic in the sense that I’m not an aggressive atheist who has a deep belief in the nonexistence of God.  I’m indifferent to it, which also means I don’t really have an axe to grind and it doesn’t fill me with rage because I don’t have childhood memories to rebel against, but nor am I particularly attracted by any kind of religion.

Question: Is that why you chose to take a scholarly look at religion?

Ian Buruma:  It may have given me a relatively…  It may have enabled me to take a fairly dispassionate view of the problem, but no, that is not the reason I decided to write it.  The book by the way, is based on three lectures that I gave at Princeton and the reason I chose the subjects is because clearly in one form or another people see religion as a challenge again to liberalism and democracy, which wasn’t true for a while.  In Europe people thought that this was a problem that had been successfully licked. But Islam is now seen as a challenge.  The mobilization of the religious right in the United States is seen as a challenge and there have been acts of religious-inspired violence in places like Japan and so on. And so it’s an issue.

Do democracy and religion require the same kind of faith?

Ian Buruma:  No, I don’t think the two are quite the same thing.  In a religion you have to have… you have to believe in some otherworldly or metaphysical force.  I don’t think that that is the case with democracy at all.  Democratic governments ought to be neutral as far as those big questions about the meaning of life, what happens after death and so on, are concerned.  I do think there has to be a common agreement to abide by certain rules and laws, and without that things of course would collapse very quickly.

How much does religious freedom in the U.S. owe to its Protestant heritage?

Ian Buruma:  I think that the particular nature of the separation of church and state in the U.S., as is true of Protestant countries in Europe or majority of Protestant countries in Europe, does have a lot to do with that. And that the authority of the Vatican, of the Catholic church, was much more opposed to democratic development in the past than the Protestant churches were.  The Protestant churches have a tradition of being suspicious of authority, certainly of absolute authority, encouraging a certain kind of individualism since every individual according to the Protestant faith has his own pipeline to God and doesn’t need to go on his knees or her knees to priests.

Has its immigration history made the U.S. more receptive to outside religious beliefs?

Ian Buruma:  Yes, I do think that.  It’s very clear what it is to be an American citizen.  It’s a political concept more than anything else.  It means that you are loyal to the Constitution and you’re a good citizen and then you can have whatever culture you wish in your private life, so you have the hyphenated citizen.  It’s much harder for Europeans to accept that this is possible.  Also the fact that so many Americans still themselves are religious makes them much more accepting of other people who are equally religious even though of religions that, you know, are not Christian or are not all that familiar.

Does entrepreneurship trump religion in the US?

Ian Buruma: Yes, I think that is probably fair to say.  Also the U.S. has a long history of a kind of folk Christianity in the form of evangelism, evangelical faiths, which in itself is very close to business and entrepreneurship.  People who start mega-churches or promote their religious faith on television are businessmen as well as preachers and that goes back you know almost the beginning of the United States.  That is why I started my book with the story of Elmer Gantry.

Why is intellectualism met with suspicion here in the U.S.?

Ian Buruma:  I think it may have something to do with the myth... or at least the ideal of egalitarianism that it’s better to be a regular guy with sort of good standing in the community, good character and so on than to be an egghead.  Eggheads are suspected and that is not just American culture.  I think that was true traditionally in Britain as well and there is something to be said for it.  I mean there are many unpleasant effects of that kind of philistinism. But the good thing is that ideas can be dangerous.  Intellectuals are dangerous when you give them too much power because they tend to take ideas to their extreme, and they’re not practical people on the whole. And it’s good I think to be a little suspicious of taking any idea to its extreme and it is probably better to have people in power who are more practical and who know the art of compromise.

What would de Tocqueville say if he could see us now?

Ian Buruma: Well I think he would be on the hand probably shocked because some of his... possibly some of his worst, his most pessimistic predictions would seem to have come true in that he was on the one hand in favor of democracy and he admired American democracy, but he was frightened of the possible consequences.  He thought it could lead to tremendous vulgarity and so on and I think he probably would see that.  He would also see a much less conformist population probably than the one he saw, depending on where he would travel of course. And I think he probably would be rather shocked by the tone of the public figures, of the politicians who are probably less, little less high minded than the ones he encountered when he was there.

Is tolerance staging a comeback?

Ian Buruma:  Well of course it is not dead, but what has happened is that tolerance which we on the whole used to regard as a positive term more and more has become a very negative one, and that those who are afraid that the West or Europe in particular is going to be Islamized, that Europe is going to end up as Eurabia or that we’ll be swamped by intolerant Muslims and so on, tend to see tolerance as at best indifference, at worst a sort of cowardly appeasement and collaboration with Islamic fascism.  I think that is very regrettable because tolerance in the sense of being able to live with people whose opinions or values you may not share, as long as everybody abides by the law and doesn’t start you know slitting each other’s throats I think is necessary. And you can’t demand—and the United States is a good example of this—that the entire population shares exactly the same cultural values, it’s impossible, nor should one demand it.  I mean diversity is part of the societies we live in.

Who does multiculturalism hurt?

Ian Buruma: Well multiculturalism, if it is simply a description of a society which consists of various different cultures and languages, is one thing.  We live in such societies.  Multiculturalism as an ideology that somehow supposes that or promotes the idea that people should stick to their own culture and not integrate or assimilate I think is wrong. But I think as an ideology it is certainly on the way out.  I don’t think that that many people believe in that anymore.  I think that when you think of it in that dogmatic way it harms minorities because they’re not encouraged to learn the skills or the languages that would allow them to take part in the societies and the economies in a way that would be beneficial to them.

How have former British colonies dealt with the phenomenon of multiculturalism?

Ian Buruma:  Well India is rather a good example of a place which has institutionalized multiculturalism in the sense that it includes a population of very different cultures and even ethnicities and I don’t just mean Muslims and Hindus.  There are a huge number of different languages in India and so on. And somehow it works even though there are instances of violence and tensions and it is a democracy that's hugely problematic, but it works.  They’ve found a way of dealing with it that actually probably the West in its more hysterical moments could learn something from.

Indonesia likewise. It was only a nation state because of... because the Dutch colonial history made it that.  I mean it is highly diverse.  It has only just become a democracy and showing many tensions, but I think again one probably we should be paying more attention to Indonesia because it is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world and when people say Islam in incompatible with democracy they should take another look at Indonesia.

Question: Are urban-rural divisions a source of violent culture clash in Europe?

Ian Buruma:   Well the violence that comes from radical Islamists for example is sometimes blamed on a clash of civilizations that somehow different traditions, one a non-Western one, one a European one, are sort of violently clashing.  I think that is a mistake.  It’s a mistake in analysis, because the people who drop bombs in the London underground for example are not guest workers from little villages in Anatoli or the Rif Mountains in Morocco.  They’re people born in Europe and raised in Europe who often grew up not knowing much about religion. And I think they indeed are often in a kind of no man’s land, which is very often true of second generation immigrants, where they are alienated from the culture of their parents or grandparents and feel rejected for one reason or another by the country in which they grew up. And of course they’re vulnerable, particularly vulnerable, to violent causes.  All young people are vulnerable to them, but they are perhaps especially vulnerable. 

How does the Tea Party movement reflect broader global fears about multiculturalism?

Ian Buruma:  Well I see the Tea Party movement as something that is part of a phenomenon that is going on all over the world now that there is a general anxiety caused by globalization, by the influence of international corporations, of super-national organizations and so on... people feel that they’re in a world where they’ve lost their grip on who they are, where they belong.  They don’t know who represents them anymore and so on.  And this has led often to defensive reactions and often hostile reactions, partly against the political elites that are blamed for this state of affairs, that are blamed for these anxieties, but also against the alien elements. And the two are linked because in Europe is it the elites that are blamed for bringing in the immigrants and for dismissing everybody who complained about tensions that come out of large-scale and not-very-well-managed immigration, that dismissed such complaints as racism. And so there is a populist reaction against the elites which has taken this immigration issue somehow as a sort of focal point.

Would promoting a view of religion as a cultural product reduce intolerance?

Ian Buruma:  Well I don’t think it would make much difference whether we call it a cultural product or anything else.  Of course to some extent it is a cultural product.  I mean the religions most people believe in are the ones that they were born with or part of the communities they were born into, but recognizing that is not going to lessen the hostilities or the tensions that are there because I think the reasons for those are social, political and as I said earlier to do with more general anxieties, which are not always very focused.  But when people are frightened the first things that they are going to react against are minorities, alien minorities—or minorities that look alien—and the people who supposedly have power, the elites who are blamed for making life difficult. 

Would some European countries benefit from the establishment of an Islamic political party?

Ian Buruma: It might, but the problem… Well, it depends on the political system.  In a basically two party system like Britain, or the United States for that matter, having a splinter party that is religious that kind doesn’t make any difference.  In countries with proportional representation where you have coalition governments, many parties there are of course religious parties. You have Christian Democrats.  You have Christian parties of various kinds, and it is very possible that there will be Islamic parties of that nature.  The problem with forming an Islamic party, and there have been people who have tried, is that there is no such thing as an Islamic community.  They are very divided.  They come from very different cultures.  There is a schism between the Shiites and the Sunnis and so on, so it is difficult for Muslims to make a common political cause even though from the outside, from the non-Muslim perspective they all may look like one great monolith.

Is genuine religious compromise possible in a liberal democracy?

Ian Buruma:  Well yes, because without compromise you can’t have a liberal system, liberal democratic system.  That is the name of the game. And so you would have to have compromises and in fact, on a daily basis we have compromises.  The question is where do you draw the line and are there things that you cannot compromise with and I would draw the line always at the use of violence or the threat of the use of violence.  If people use violence or threaten violence to impose their views on others that is something that cannot be tolerated or compromised with.

Recorded April 21, 2010