:: Article

Walking On Eggshells

By Max Dunbar.


Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, Ian Buruma, Princeton 2010

I first got to know Ian Buruma through Murder in Amsterdam, his beautiful, flawed account of the Theo van Gogh assassination. The book showed Buruma’s strengths as a reporter, a writer and a historian; he delved into the lives behind the headlines. However, his sense of judgement was seriously skewed – and this was a problem, because Buruma didn’t confine himself to telling the story and made pronouncements throughout the text. On Aayan Hirsi Ali, Buruma wrote: ‘one can’t help sensing that in her battle for secularism, there are hints of zealousness, echoes perhaps of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood’. The intellectual laziness, the careful obfuscation in that sentence is quite something.

The most telling sentence in Buruma’s Taming the Gods, another book about religion and democracy, is this: ‘In fact, passion is to be distrusted.’ The worst thing is to take a side. Buruma goes out of his way to avoid a strong, coherent opinion or conviction. In this, he is a creature of contemporary discourse. Situating yourself between two opposing propositions can make you seem wise in a kind of Zen Buddhist way. Repeat the posture too often, though, and it leads to a kind of derangement, a wilful stupidity. Buruma sways on the fence, windmilling his arms.

Apparently: ‘it should be possible to see merit in both Aayan Hirsi Ali’s critique of religious bigotry and Tariq Ramadan’s attempt to reconcile Islam with democratic practices.’ It isn’t possible, though, because Hirsi Ali is a liberal feminist and Ramadan a Muslim Brotherhood activist. The author Kenan Malik is part of the ‘leftists who joined the Kulturkampf against multiculturalism.’ Conceding that some Islamic activists do not think democracy worth defending, Buruma quickly qualifies this with: ‘Not all Muslims share this view. Some fundamentalists refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the secular state. This is true of some ultra-orthodox Jews as well’. Indeed you do meet fundamentalist Jews. Is this relevant, though?

Taming the Gods is a story, an intellectual journey, full of erudition and economy, a pleasant and interesting read. Yet it is also a careful negotiation around several unwritten assumptions. As we’ve seen, Buruma has accused Malik of joining a faction of secular leftists who support a Kulturkampf against multiculturalism. Their thesis is supposed to be that ‘Islam is incompatible with what we now call ‘Enlightenment values’ or ‘Western values’ (as though these were identical), and that the presence of a large Muslim majority in the West will damage, if not destroy, values that we have come to take for granted (forgetting how recently they have been acquired), such as free speech and equal rights for women and homosexuals.’

He repeats the claim that ‘Enlightenment values are often interpreted as Western values’ but who is making this interpretation? Buruma does not say. The endnotes do not say. No one I know on the secular left would describe the Enlightenment as anything but universal. Instead Buruma cites Melanie Phillips, a demagogue and conspiracy theorist whose viciousness stands out even on the newspaper for which she writes. ‘In the true spirit of Kulturkampf, Melanie Phillips cries out that ‘Britain is currently locked in such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality, that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation.’ And what is her solution? ‘I, a British Jew, argue that it is vital that Britain and Europe re-Christianise if they are to have any chance of defending western values.’ Phillips would fight religious fundamentalism not with Enlightenment values (‘secular humanism had opened Pandora’s Box’) but with more religious fundamentalism.

The second assumption in Taming the Gods is that religion, in and of itself, plays no part in the hourly atrocities committed in its name. The scriptures are always ‘used to justify such savagery’. One has no problem pinpointing racist ideology as a motivator in racist crimes, but the suicide bomber who kills and immolates is never recognised as a valid believer in the religious creed that escapes his blackening lips.

In this, again, Buruma is a man of his time. Last Sunday the world saw yet another of faith’s Guernicas as five hundred Christians were slaughtered by Islamists in the Nigerian city of Jos. The killings are thought to be reprisals for a previous atrocity in which the victims were Muslims. Liberal commentators fell over themselves to disassociate the killers’ beliefs from their crimes. My exasperated Shiraz Socialist colleague Jim Denham made the point well:

[A]lthough the underlying reasons for this horrible massacre are socio-economic, religion has clearly exacerbated matters and intensified the conflict. Yet religious people and those on the ‘left’ who seek appease religion and the religious, constantly deny this self-evident fact, trying to make out (against all the evidence) that religion generally plays some sort of benign role in society. Any and all evidence to the contrary (and there’s plenty) is dismissed on the grounds that belligerant or sectarian religion isn’t really religion at all, but some sort of aberration. A version of the ‘No true Scotsman’ argument.

It should be difficult to write a whole book about religion without confronting such self-evident truths, but Buruma has managed it.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 13th, 2010.