Ian Buruma on the Political Excesses of Religion

Few writers could to pick a theme like the global interplay of democracy and religion and hope to utter the final word on the subject. In his latest book, Ian Buruma, a journalist and historian with over a dozen seminal books to his credit, does something better. The three essays in Taming the Gods each work to unsettle assumptions about the divide between religion and the secular, and to set a new kind of conversation in motion. 

When we met last month in San Francisco, I began our conversation by commenting on the scope of the book. Buruma, best known for his expertise on Japan, told me he’d written partly to contest the idea that religion doesn’t matter in the political life of East Asia. “It’s a different kind of religion,” he explained, “the idea of spiritual authority still plays a big role.” And, while it operates more subtly than the dogmas and conventions of monotheistic religion, this spiritual authority is still a factor in what Buruma calls “the political excesses of religion.”

Buruma’s careful way of making distinctions among things that appear to be similar—or drawing attention to ways in which near cousins are actually worlds apart—seemed to me, after our short meeting, to be a hallmark of his singularly patient mode of intellectual work.

Our conversation ranged among topics from Dutch Calvinism to Texas billboards to the new European culture wars.


The first essay in the Taming the Gods is about America and Europe. Can you talk a little about that?

Well, one of the things that became clearer to me as I did my research is that people like to think that there’s a real divide in Western civilization between the New World and the Old World, the U.S. and Europe, and I felt that, on reflection and reading up on it, that actually the divide is much less wide than people think it is. If there is a divide it’s often between Protestant countries and Catholic countries. Or countries such as the U.S. where the established Protestant churches were swept away a long time ago in favor of new forms of Christianity.

And I think the revolts in Europe (and again it’s something Tocqueville really noticed in the 19th century) were really against the Church as an authoritarian institution—much more than against religion as such. (That revolt in America had already taken place in the 17th century.) There are other differences but they run through the entire Western world. Which is why I compared, for example, the Calvinist politics in 19th century Holland with Christian politics in the U.S.

So I think it’s easy to exaggerate differences.

That’s the thing—once a story gets told it calcifies…

What Europeans don’t quite get about Americans is the nature of Christianity here. In Europe, people (whether they’re believers or not) still associate the church—whether Calvinist or Catholic, or anything else—with clear authority figures. Whereas in America it’s much closer to, well… capitalism.

One thing that struck me, traveling through Texas, was that you look at billboards along the freeways, and the way that the new religions, the evangelicals, promote themselves, is exactly the way that banks do. They talk about “extra interest” from God, and it’s all individuals becoming religious because they think they can get a personal benefit out of it—and the people offering the benefit are making money out of it. So it’s a business.

And that’s very different from the traditional role of the Calvinists, or the Lutherans, or the Anglicans, or the Catholics.

We know now that so-called prosperity preaching seemed to play a part in the real estate bust. People went to church and were told to buy things they couldn’t afford.

I’m not surprised. Underlying that, of course, is a Protestant notion that is also there in Europe, which is that to accumulate wealth shows that you’re blessed by God.

That does seem to have remained a through-line in American theological culture.

But that was true for [European] Calvinists as well. That’s one of the reasons Holland in the 17th century became such a successful commercial society. It was wrong to be ostentatious—you didn’t show it off—but the accumulation showed that you were one of the chosen ones.

Sometimes it seems like we’re simply “consumers.”

Yeah, but citizens as well. On the level of local politics for example, I think Americans are much more engaged in civic affairs than Europeans are.


Part of my time I live in upstate New York, and when there is an issue in the local town people do go to town hall meetings. I’ve never really seen that in Europe. And people vote for everybody: police commissioner, town controller. There isn’t anything really quite like that in Europe.

You talk about the difference between the French idea of laïcité and secularism. Can you explain that?

Secularism can mean two things. It can be a description of a society where church is clearly separated from state—in that sense we live in a secular society in the U.S.—but it can also be turned into a kind of dogma of its own. Which is the case of France after the revolution. Reason was almost treated as a matter of faith.

And then you get a kind of ideology of secularism rather than a description of a de facto separation; those are two slightly different things. And I think laïcité tends to be very ideological—and something that wants to extol reason as the highest form of human expression, that wants to ban religious symbols from public places and so on. It can become quite dogmatic, which secularism doesn’t have to be.

What about the idea that secularism, as a narrative of progress, has Protestant roots?

If you mean the separation of church and state, then yes. Because I think there was far more resistance from the Catholic Church—after all, the French revolution was fought against the power of the Catholic Church. And so the Vatican as an institution was the much more established political source of real power and the Protestants were the dissidents.

So and I think it’s also true to say that both in the U.S. and in many Protestant countries in Europe—such as, for example, the Netherlands—Christians were often the ones who insisted on separation of church and state to protect their faith from the encroachments of the state. Whereas in France the Revolution was much more fought—and this is the idea of laïcité—to protect the secular state from the power of the Church. And that was anti-Catholic, didn’t come from Catholics. Yes, there is a strong Protestant base for the separation of powers.

There’s an irony somehow in the Christian evangelical incursion into government in America. The separation of church and state was supposed to be good for religion…

Yes. Which is why the Protestants, especially the evangelicals, were in favor of it. And it’s something that Tocqueville saw when he was here—by taking religion out of the secular sphere of political power it can flourish undisturbed.

Which it has. Does it seem to you that we’re more religious than Europeans?

Well yes, in the sense that a higher percentage of people profess belief in God; a higher percentage of people regularly go to church; and religion plays a much bigger part in politics—although I think that’s relatively recent. It had been quite quiet for a long time. But yes, for sure, it’s quite a contrast.

I wanted to ask about your use of the word liberalism.

It’s such a slippery term—it’s changed meaning in time. In Europe when you talk about liberalism you can still on the whole take it to mean 19th-century laissez faire policies which are associated with conservatism, with the right. And in America probably since the New Deal it’s become synonymous with the left of center. So it’s almost come to mean the opposite. Yet it can also mean free-spirited, liberal-minded, and so on.

I mean I think one thing that perhaps both meanings have in common—the laissez faire and the American progressive liberal sense—is that its enemies, people who deeply distrust it, distrust it partly because they think it’s nihilistic, that liberalism is something for people who don’t believe in anything. And in the conservative 19th-century sense, people only believe in money, but don’t hold any deeper values. And in America it’s people who are godless and acceptant, too tolerant of people who don’t supposedly share our values. So the enemies of liberalism, in all senses, have that in common.

And secular and liberal go together in that sense…

Yes, in the sense that a liberal does not promote any particular belief. Which is not to say that a liberal doesn’t believe in anything. Liberals do believe in something, whether it’s the 19th century variety or the American left-of-center variety. But it doesn’t seek to impose a particular belief on society at large. And that’s in some ways held against it by those who want society to be overtly Christian, or kick the Muslims out.

Can you say something about the new culture wars, or kulturkampf, in Europe now—about multiculturalism versus the defenders of “enlightenment values”

The difference is that the Right here, certainly the Tea Party kind of right, or Dick Armey, people like that, seek to impose religious values. Whereas on the right in Europe, there are those people who talk nowadays about Judeo-Christianity (whereas half a century ago they just talked about Christianity). But many of them, even the more zealous populists who have an overtly anti-Islam agenda, don’t talk about Christianity—they talk about the Enlightenment.

And the Enlightenment used to be associated with the left, with liberals. But now, suddenly, defenders of the Enlightenment argue that the West stands for Enlightenment values and Muslims—religious Muslims—are challenging it, attacking it, undermining. But my view is that they’re using the Enlightenment as a kind of badge of what they see as Western civilization that has to be defended; whereas exactly the same sort of people half a century ago talked about Christendom.

Because of secularization in Europe, and because the authority of the Church no longer holds much sway, the Enlightenment suddenly has been latched onto as a convenient badge of the West. And the people who talk about defending Enlightenment values can be, and often are, former leftists. And they can be cultural conservatives. They’ve found a common cause in their opposition to Islam. And you see something like that here, where neo-conservatives who are secular and often used to be on the left, have found common cause against Islam with cultural conservatives.

The question of Islam is different here: we don’t have an analogue to the idea of “Eurabia.”

Actually there are plenty of websites that promote that: David Horovitz, Daniel Pipes, Campus Watch, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman.

Do they share a discourse with European Islamophobes?

Well someone like Berman is always quoting French intellectuals who are on that side, who see Islam as a great threat and so on—I’m a great enemy to them.

Of course…

Well you say “of course” but it’s slightly absurd. The problem with the culture wars is that it’s become increasingly difficult—and that’s true here too—to have a real debate in good faith, where two sides hold different views but are both interested in finding the truth. The kulturkampf leaves no room for that; it only has room for friends and enemies and collaborators and resisters.

So if you argue, as some people do, that political Islam is such a threat to the West that it’s really like being, as they like to say, “1938 all over again”; if we don’t stand up to this new fascist danger then you’re an appeaser, a collaborator. And so, for example, I’ve written quite a lot about the two most polarizing figures in this whole debate: Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan. And I’ve tried to find a nuanced position. I agree with some things they say, disagree with other things they say; I admire both for some reasons and am critical of both for some reasons. But it’s become so heated that saying anything critical about Ayaan immediately makes you into an enemy of enlightened values and anything good you might have to say about Tariq Ramadan makes you an appeaser and an Islamist. And the people who say these things come from all political directions and they’re not all cultural conservatives.

Sounds like you’re finding this frustrating.

Well it is frustrating. These issues are important and need to be really debated, not just become slanging matches and denunciations.

Is there anybody whose model you admire?

There are many people. I admire the French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy very much. I think he’s excellent. There are many: Tony Judt, for example.

It’s hard to get a nuanced view

Because it’s become very emotive. It’s like discussing Israel. It’s very difficult to have a dispassionate reasonable difference of opinion on that because it’s so loaded with all different kinds of emotions and associations and so on. Again, the debate is poisoned by denunciation. And I think that’s very true of the debate on Islam—and of course the two debates are very linked.

Denunciation in the sense that you become an enemy on a political level?

Because you supposedly support terrorism? Yes, that’s one side of it. The other side is that it is of course linked to Israel because a lot of the fervor in Islamist circles is at least nominally blamed on Israel, and the role of the West in Israel, and there’s also (though commonly denied), a lot of anti-Semitic rhetoric among Muslims. So those who see themselves as defenders of Western civilization against the Islamic threat also often see themselves as defenders of Israel. And they see their opponents often as either anti-Semites or people who close their eyes to anti-Semitism, or appease it out of cowardice.

As a journalist you’ve had conversations with people on the farthest ends of the spectrum.

Yes, I’ve never actually interviewed members of al Qaeda, as far as I know, but certainly fundamentalists. But that’s again, people often confuse that with violent revolutionaries. You can be a fundamentalist and be perfectly peaceful. Of course they overlap; some violent revolutionaries are also fundamentalists—but one doesn’t necessarily imply the other.

You talk about a type of Islam not rooted in traditional religion.

Well, that goes for almost all the new purist forms of Islam. Because it’s very influenced by Wahabism and it appeals especially to children of immigrants who are alienated from the traditions of their parents but don’t feel accepted, for one reason or another, by the country of their birth. So precisely because it is a kind of “born-again” form of Islam, very pure and global, it’s not tied to any particular tradition. So yes, it is a new form.

Pure and religion don’t really go together, in practice, do they?

Except new religions—they can be very purist. You see that in Christianity too. If you compare most evangelicals in the U.S. today with traditional priests in the Catholic church the evangelicals will tend to be more purist.

Saying it’s modern doesn’t necessarily make it enlightened.