FP: Ian Buruma, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Buruma: Thank you.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Buruma: I grew up in The Netherlands, but left in 1975. The murder of van Gogh was an opportunity to see how the country had changed. It was also a story with three characters who interested me: van Gogh himself, the Somali-born politician and activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Mohammed Bouyeri, the killer, born in Amsterdam of Moroccan parents. All three represented different aspects of the modern world which were headed for a violent clash.
FP: Tell us briefly who Theo Van Gogh was and how and why he was killed.
Buruma: Van Gogh was a filmmaker, columnist, and professional provocateur, who lived to stir things up. Born in a well-to-do upper-middle-class family, he was a child of the 1960s: hedonistic, anti-authoritarian, secular. But he was also in some ways a typical product of Dutch Calvinism. Bluntness, even crass insults were elevated to being virtues, signs of honesty. Tact, to him, was a form of hypocrisy, more typical of Catholics. In his battle against hypocrisy, he was indiscriminate. He denounced Jewish writers for drawing attention to themselves by referring to the Holocaust. He denounced Christianity in general. He denounced social democrats for being soft on Muslims. He denounced Muslims for being like the Nazis. He denounced the social-democratic mayor of Amsterdam, a Jew who tried to find common ground with non-violent Muslim citizens, for behaving like Nazi collaborator. And all this in the spirit of “the village idiot”.
Unfortunately, Bouyeri, a radicalized revolutionary Muslim, failed to see the humor in van Gogh’s insults to his faith, and murdered him. The immediate reason was ‘Submission’, a short film, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and directed by van Gogh.
FP: It is particularly significant that this occurred in Holland? Share with us where Holland stands in the culture and terror war.
Buruma: It is significant only because Holland was particularly proud of being the most successful, most tolerant, most generous liberal multicultural society in Europe. The murder came as a shock, because, like World War II, this should never have happened in Holland. In a kind of panic reaction, it was often the most vociferous believers in multiculturalism who suddenly decided that everything they had stood for was wrong. New alliances were formed between social conservatives who had always been suspicious of foreigners, and of Islam in particular, and old leftists who saw Islam as a threat to liberal values, associated with the Enlightenment.
FP: So is "Eurabia', or an Islamized Europe, a real possibility? How is the U.S. situation different?
Buruma: No, it is not a real possibility. The Muslims are too small in number to convert Europe to their religion, and many Muslims are not devout anyway. The danger is not “Islamicization”, but a violent revolutionary movement affecting disaffected youths, born in Europe. The violent faith-based politics of the Middle-East offers a ready-made cause to these young people, comparable to the appeal of Maoism in the past. The cause is often transmitted through the Internet. This revolutionary movement must be isolated by coming to some kind of accommodation with the mainstream Muslims. The Dutch, who are often as dogmatic in their secularism, as they used to be in their Christianity, are not best placed at the moment to do this.
FP: Accommodation of Muslims? Sorry I don’t understand you here. Shouldn’t Muslims be accepting the values of the society to which they immigrate? How do we accommodate followers of a religion who do not believe in secularism and want to see the implementation of Islamic law? Why do you put the onus on the host society to accommodate those who don’t believe in tolerance and in the separation of Church and State? Shouldn’t the onus be on those who come to a new society and are totalitarian-minded to accept the liberal values of the place they want to live? Also, are you not underestimating demographic factors, in the sense that over the next few decades the Muslim population in Europe will be skyrocketing?
Buruma: The agitated tone of your question suggests that you believe that all Muslims want the implementation of Shariah law, are “totalitarian-minded”, and refuse to accept the separation of church and state. Some no doubt fit this description, others don’t. I don’t believe everyone in a liberal democracy needs to “share the same values”. I doubt whether an ultra-orthodox Jew or a member of the Christian Right, or a Communist, shares my values either. What is important is that we abide by the laws. If a Muslim wishes to promote Shariah law for all, let him argue his case. After all, Communists were allowed to argue their case too. What is impermissable is to use violence or the threat of violence to impose one’s views. I doubt whether the number of Muslims who see violence as a legitimate form of politics in Europe will “skyrocket”. As for the idea that “they” will outbreed “us”, this is a common fear voiced many times before, towards blacks, Jews, or indeed any minority we instinctively dislike. I think such instincts are perhaps better left out of a political debate.
FP: I am not saying that all Muslims want Sharia law. But I am saying that there are many Muslims who obviously do, because Islam is a religion that rejects Church and State. And that should be of concern to people who appreciate the freedom within their own society. And there is a major difference between a person who is a racist against a certain minority and a person who might be concerned that a part of the population that follows a certain religion/ideology which rejects individual freedom, female equality and democracy is growing at a fast rate in his own society.
In any case, what ways do you think secularism can be as dogmatic as religious zeal?
Buruma: Secularism in the sense of keeping the Church separate from the state is a good idea, which must be defended. Secularism as an anti-religious dogma can be as intolerant as religious belief. Muslims, like other believers, should be made to feel that they have as much of a stake in our freedoms as non-believers do. Dogmatically opposing symbols of their faith, such as women’s veils, alienates people who should be on our side. The danger to Western liberties is not religion, even religious orthodoxy, but revolutionary violence. Any kind of violence, carried out in the name of religion, whether it is honor killings or terrorism, should be punished by law. Non-violent expressions of religion must be tolerated.
FP: I think you might be overlooking a crucial issue when it comes to veiling. Do you believe that a Muslim woman who does not want to veil should have the right not veil without fearing for her life? Surely you are aware that the principle of forced veiling is brought to free societies by many Muslim immigrants.
Zilla Huma Usman, a Pakistani minister and woman’s activist, was, as you know, recently shot dead by an Islamic extremist for refusing to wear the veil. You are clearly aware, of course, that many immigrants from the Muslim world bring the violent beliefs that engendered such a murder to the free world and enforce it on their women. Where are these women’s rights? Who will stand up for them?
Surely you take into account that many Muslim girls suffer in their new societies by their Muslim overseers – as Bruce Bawer has demonstrated in While Europe Slept and Phyllis Chesler has shown in The Death of Feminism.
Buruma: Since you seem to know so precisely what I am aware of, and what I take into account, there may be little point in my continuing this discussion. Still, I will try. Of course, I am not in favour of enforcing the veil. There are many instances even in liberal societies of people (parents and others) trying to enforce their views. This is to be condemned. But I would not wish the state to intervene too much in the private lives of citizens, unless they commit violent or illegal acts. If a woman is violently attacked for not wearing a veil, the police should act to enforce the law. I think you are mistaken about the dynamics of Islamist extremism in Europe today. The main perpetrators of violence in the name of religion in Europe are not, on the whole, the original guest workers or refugees who retained the cultures of their native countries. It is their children, born in Europe, who are vulnerable to a modern, violent revolutionary creed. This must be resisted. But in that necessary struggle, the veil, in my opinion, is a distraction.
FP: Well, the veil and its enforcement crystallizes the difference between those who believe in individual freedom and those who do not. And I think that authors such as Bruce Bawer and Phyllis Chesler touch on a valid issue when they shed light on the horrible oppression that, for instance, many Muslim girls suffer from their families on the territory of a free Western society – let alone anywhere else.
Let’s turn to former leftists. How come you think so many of them have become neo-cons?
Buruma: Disillusion with former leftist positions, because of the perceived failure of multiculturalism and Third World liberation movements. A penchant for radical action and heroic causes. Impatience with wishy-washy, unheroic liberals, who always try to see the other side of any question, and thus are loth to take radical action. Strong anti-clericalism which, in the tradition of the old left, is quick to see any religious orthodoxy as a form of ‘clerico-fascism.’
FP: So if multiculturalism failed, what will succeed? Being easy on the intolerant in a tolerant society isn’t going to make the problem go away.
Buruma: True, problems don’t always just go away. Nor will intolerance ever totally disappear. There are many forms of intolerance in any society. Islamic intolerance is but one instance. We can tolerate intolerant views. What we cannot tolerate are views imposed with violence.
FP: So what are some recommendations you have for Western societies in their effort to deal with radical Islam on their territory?
Buruma: If by radical Islam you mean violent revolutionary Islamism, this must be dealt with in the same way states dealt with other forms of revolutionary violence in the past, by monitoring, investigating, infiltrating, and arresting. It is mainly a matter for intelligence services and the police. At the same time we must take measures to prevent such groups from gaining recruits or sympathy among the wider community of Muslims. This can only be done successfully if Muslims feel accepted as equal citizens. That means a more open job market in Europe, less social discrimination, better education. Stigmatizing people as potential terrorists because they wear headscarves or beards would not be helpful.
FP: At the same time, a Muslim does make a certain political statement by the manner in which he/she dresses. If a Muslim woman covers her face, she is making a statement to the host society in which she lives. Many Muslims in Europe have also resisted assimilation, in accord with EU/Arab League agreements going back to the 1970s -- so the onus isn't only on the Europeans.
Buruma: Wearing a veil is not always a political statement. It can simply be an expression of faith, as are the black suits and wigs worn by Hassidim. I would not be in favor of banning such expressions in the name of assimilation. That is why I enjoy living in the United States, where people can live the way they want, as long as they abide by the laws.
FP: Yes, wearing a veil is not always a political statement. But wearing the niqab (full face veil) in a free society, for example, is a statement nonetheless. And as the Muslim Canadian Congress has emphasized, the niqab is not a religious requirement at all and it does nothing but hinder the process of a Muslim individual’s assimilation. It is dubious to complain that society is marginalizing certain people when those people themselves are simultaneously engaged in self-marginalization.
In any case, perhaps we will continue a discussion on these issues in another time and place my friend. Ian Buruma, it was a pleasure having you as a guest here at Frontpage Interview. Thank you for joining us.
Buruma: It was a pleasure talking to you.