What Indonesia Can Teach Us About Tolerance

Looking for a model of successful multiculturalism? You could do worse than former European colonies such as India and Indonesia.
  • Transcript


Question: 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.

Recorded April 21, 2010