Ian Buruma
Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism, Bard College
02:48

Why Islamic Political Parties Fail

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Many Muslims feel excluded from Europe’s political process, yet the internal divisions of Islam have prevented believers from making common cause.

Ian Buruma

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.
Transcript
Question: 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. 

Question:
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.

Question:
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

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