Ian Buruma, Euroislam and the Enlightenment fundamentlists
An international debate 20 May 2007

Is Islam becoming more European, or Europe more Islamic? This question is deemed to be one of the most decisive for the coming century, and there is no coincidence that it has been bitterly dividing the intellectuals of the Old Continent for some years. The most recent controversy has been spread across the pages of the European – and not only European – press for a good four months, and has seen the squaring up of two sides who have each shown a willingness to hit below the belt. On the one side there is Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, criticising those who, in condemning fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, themselves become ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’ who believe the world would be better without religion of any kind. On the other side there is Pascal Bruckner and Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who are considered to be too ‘intolerant’ towards certain radical forms of Islam. It is a difficult, complex, and at times contradictory controversy.

The origins of the controversy: Ian Buruma and the end of the Dutch model

Last September, the Dutch intellectual Ian Buruma (Professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, New York, and co-author, along with Avishai Margalit of Occidentalism) published his most recent work Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. In this book, Buruma returns to his native Netherlands to assess the state of Muslim immigration in a country still reeling from the murder of the director Theo Van Gogh – ‘punished’ with death by an Islamic extremist, the son of Moroccan immigrants, for having made a film which his murderer considered to be ‘blasphemous’ towards Islam. This latter, Mohamed Bouyeri, struck in the heart of the city centre, slitting Van Gogh’s throat and pinning to his chest an insciption invoking holy war against infidels. The film, Submission, describes the state of submission in which women in many Muslim families are kept and shows passages from the Quran projected onto the bodies of semi-naked Muslim women.

The film was written by a very well-known and much discussed individual in the Netherlands, the Somali refugee Ayan Hirsi Ali, a one-time parliamentary deputy of the centre-right party the VVD, who was later forced to leave the country (by a Minister of her own party!) after having confessed to an irregularity in her request for asylum back in 1992, and who now works in Washington for the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. And it was precisely towards Hirsi Ali that the messaged carved into Van Gogh’s chest was directed. Buruma’s book, part essay, part reportage, tells how the death of Van Gogh has marked the end of multiculturalism and also “the end of a sweet dream of tolerance and light in the most progressive little enclave of Europe” . It also reminds us, however, that that the myth of the tolerant Netherlands had increasingly become little more than a legend, as demonstrated by the political success of the far right – led by Pym Fortuyn, who was murdered by a fanatic. The ultimate question which Buruma poses is this: what happens when political Islam collides with liberal Western society, and tolerance is forced to find its limits?

The Enlightment Fundamentalists: Garton Ash criticises Hirsi Ali

Just a few months later, on the 5th October 2006 in the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian from Oxford University, reviewed two works – Buruma’s book and a collection of essays by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the writer of Submission, entitled The Caged Virgin: An emancipation proclamation for women and Islam. In his extremely lengthy essay, Garton Ash offers a balanced account of the situation in a Europe in which, in certain suburbs, Muslims will soon constitute up to 90% of the population, and in which a failure to integrate them socially could present a very serious problem. According to the British intellectual, Bouyeri is one of the ‘Inbetween People’, who do not feel at home either in Europe, nor in their countries of origin, and who live in “’dish cities’, connected to the lands of their parents’ birth by satellite dishes bringing in Moroccan or Turkish television channels.” Garton Ash then notes how Ian Buruma’s ‘fascinating latest work’ has a chapter dedicated to Hirsi Ali, and reflects on it.

“It’s no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to” notes The Guardian and Repubblica columnist, who praises the Somali refugee for her courage and for her struggles in defence of women, and bitterly regrets Europe’s loss in allowing her to leave, but goes on to define her as an ‘Enlightment fundamentalist’, a heroine of those Europeans who, like her, believe that “ not just Islam but all religion is insulting to the intelligence and crippling to the human spirit. Most of them believe that a Europe based entirely on secular humanism would be a better Europe”. With this argument Garton Ash criticises the very essence of Hirsi Ali’s message: “I do not believe that she is showing the way forward for most Muslims in Europe, at least not for many years to come. A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic. If the message they hear from us is that the necessary condition for being European is to abandon their religion, then they will choose not to be European. For secular Europeans to demand that Muslims adopt their faith—secular humanism—would be almost as intolerant as the Islamist jihadist demand that we should adopt theirs. But, the Enlightenment fundamentalist will protest, our faith is based on reason! Well, they reply, ours is based on truth!”

The racism of the anti-racists: Paul Bruckner defends Hirsi Ali

On the 24th January 2007, in the German on-line journal Perlentaucher (Signandsight.com), Pascal Bruckner spoke out to defend Hirsi Ali from the criticisms of Buruma and Garton Ash. Bruckner, one of the French ‘nouveaux philosophes’ quotes Voltaire and immediately launches into an attack on the two, claiming that “There’s no denying that the enemies of freedom come from free societies”. He attempts to dismantle some of their arguments, and sides decisively with Hirsi Ali. “It’s not enough that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has to live like a recluse, threatened with having her throat slit by radicals and surrounded by bodyguards … Now she has to endure the ridicule of the high-minded idealists and armchair philosophers. She has even been called a Nazi in the Netherlands. Thus the defenders of liberty are styled as fascists, while the fanatics are portrayed as victims!” Bruckner weaves together the merits of the Enlightenment (which will “strike down the Islamist hydra”), and accuses Garton Ash of sexism (or rather of ‘outmoded maschismo’): “In his eyes, only the beauty and glamour of the Dutch parliamentarian can explain her media success; not the accuracy of what she says. Garton Ash does not ask whether the fundamentalist theologian Tariq Ramadan, to whom he sings enflamed panegyrics, also owes his fame to his Playboy looks”. In this way, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash demonstrate “the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes”.

The French philosopher’s criticisms towards the model of multiculturalism (which he claims recognises groups, but oppresses individuals, creating a “legal apartheid”, “a racism of the anti-racists”, which “chains people to their roots”) assume a political and politico-cultural value. Timothy Garton Ash is accused of demonstrating a “francophobia worthy of Washington’s Neocons”, and thus the controversy ‘Buruma/Garton Ash vs Hirsi-Ali/Bruckner’ has become transformed into a battle in which the Anglo-Saxon multicultural model is pitted against the French integrationist one, even in which the Bush/Blair duo is pitted against Franco-European pacisfism (which might make us think, in passing, of the fact that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who supposedly belongs to the second group, is currently employed by a Neocon think tank). Bruckner lauds the French model, “the result of the victory over obscurantism and events like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. How could we tolerate in Islam that which we no longer tolerate in Catholicism?”. “Fostering an enlightened European Islam is capital” Bruckner concludes. “Europe may become a model, a shining example for reform which will hopefully take place along the lines of Vatican II. It is time to extend our solidarity to all the rebels of the Islamic world, non-believers, atheist libertines, dissenters, sentinels of liberty, as we supported Eastern European dissidents in former times”.

Neither racist nor collaborators: Buruma’s response

A mere five days later, on the 29th January, came Ian Buruma’s reply, again in the journal Perlentaucher (published in Italy in Il Corriere della Sera). Buruma states his admiration for Hirsi Ali (“I agree with most of what she stands for”) and reminds us that the last words of his book are dedicated to her (“My country seems smaller without her”), and that as such never ever could his book be construed as an attack on the Somali refugee. “Where I differ from Hirsi Ali is perhaps a matter of emphasis,” he stresses, in that he claims religion cannot be treated as the root of all evil, and that it is wrong to believe that the traditions and customs of Islam can be reduced to a monolithic threat. The Dutch intellectual then invites us to learn how to distinguish (some women, he explains, wear the veil as a sign of identity, as an act of rebellion), and defends himself against the charge of relativism, claiming that he obviously maintains “intolerable” violence against women, genital mutilation of girls and honour killings. Although Hirsi Ali has every right to say it, Buruma states it is not very useful to claim that Islam is ‘backwards’ and its prophet ‘perverse’: “If Islamic reform is the goal, then such denunciations are not the best way to achieve it, especially if they come from an avowed atheist. Condemning Islam, without taking the many variations into account, is too indiscriminate”.

Buruma, unlike Bruckner, defends the possibility of Islamic hospitals and beaches (“I fail to see why this is so much more terrible than opening kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals, or reserved beaches for nudists”) and cannot understand the accusation of ‘mediaeval inquisitor’: “ [Just] because Tim Garton Ash pointed out Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s undeniable beauty and glamour. Perhaps he shouldn’t have pointed this out, but the Inquisition?”) Buruma concedes more to his ‘adversary’ than this latter could have expected (judging by the bitterness of the French philosopher’s attacks). Although Bruckner may have relegated him to the ranks of the Anglo-Saxon multiculturalists, Buruma replies that there are many aspects of the French model worthy of admiration, but certainly not that the State can (or should) in some way become involved in the dogmas or interpretations of sacred writings. For the remainder of the article, Buruma, with a certain ostentatious serenity, continues a subtle, restrained attack. He labels the “Gallic chauvinism” of his adversary as outdated, doesn’t let the subtle accusation of ‘collaborator’ pass him by (Bruckner thus associating the majority of Muslims with Nazis), mockingly dubs Bruckner the “rebel king of the Left Bank”, and fights sarcasm with sarcasm: “It is an interesting sensation, by the way, to be called an armchair philosopher by Mr. Brucker. And here I can also speak for Timothy Garton Ash; while he was spending years with Central European dissidents, and I with Chinese and South Korean rebels, Bruckner, so far as I know, rarely strayed far from the centre of Paris”.

More Pascal, less Pascal Bruckner: Garton Ash

And finally comes Garton Ash’s turn to defend himself against Bruckner’s accusations. After having compared Bruckner to a ‘drunk’ who picks out fights in the street with imaginary enemies, once again on Signandsight.com, Garton Ash lists and rejects each of the arguments directed at him by the French philosopher, and does so by quoting back his own texts published in The Guardian . Through these, the Oxford historian shows that he had publicly applauded the courage of Hirsi Ali, that he has never lauded multiculturalism, that he has consistently criticised the militaristic approach of Bush and Blair , and that he could certainly never be defined a francophobe. “The pity of all this is that there is a vital debate to be had here”, he explains – “neither the extreme version of live-and-let-die separatist multiculturalism that Ali saw and rightly criticised in Holland (and that has also been seen in some British cities) nor the secularist republican monoculturalism preached by Bruckner and (partly) practised in France have succeeded in enabling Muslim immigrants and their descendants to feel at home in Europe […] While defending the fundamentals of a free society, such as freedom of expression, with an iron will, we also need a large tolerance for cultural diversity”, concludes Garton Ash, preparing the final attack, “and an acknowledgment that religious believers can at the same time be reasonable persons and good citizens. In short: less Bruckner, more Pascal”.

Translation by Liz Longden