Ian Buruma writes about politics and culture for a variety of major publications—most frequently for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Corriere della Sera, The Financial Times, and The Guardian. He has served as cultural editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review and Foreign Editor of The Spectator, and in 2008 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize for his "especially important
contribution to culture, society or social science in Europe." He is currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. His most recent book, "Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents" was published by Princeton university Press in March, 2010.
Question: Is tolerance staging a comeback?
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.
Question: 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.
Question: How have former British colonies dealt with the phenomenon
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.
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
Recorded April 21, 2010