Preface: Another author from the Jaipur Literature Festival whose book I have just completed.
Ian Buruma’s Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy onThree Continents (2010)(132 p.) is a collection of three essays about the intersection of religion and politics. One essay focuses on the U.S., one on China and Japan, and the last on Islam in Europe. Buruma draws upon a careful review of the history of all three areas to show how complex and historically rich the interaction has been between religion and politics since the advent of the modern period. In the U.S., we’ve always had a culture of highly individualistic, equalitarian Protestantism along with the more traditional denominations. In addition, the American Founders were all Enlightenment thinkers who incorporated the separation of Church and State into the Constitution and culture. Thus, while religion has to varying degrees always influenced politics, the State has remained neutral. However, as Buruma’s account makes clear, this separation seems always subject to question, especially by evangelical Christians in recent years after staying mostly away from politics after the 1920’s. I think that their influence is waning; it waxed with the G.W. Bush presidency.
The second essay addresses the relations of politics and religion in China and Japan, and while we don’t think of either of those nations having current issues about religion and politics, Buruma recounts the history of both that reveals very complex interactions. Indeed, issues of nationalism, Western domination, modernization, and the values of local (and often conflicting) traditions suggests that any current calm could break into a storm if conditions deteriorate too greatly in either country. The Mandate of Heaven can prove fickle.
The third and final essay addresses the very tricky issue of Islam and Europe. We think of Europe as too cool, too sophisticated for religion, as religious practice among Christians has fallen especially in the last 30 years. But as Buruma notes, Europe has been through its religious wars and conflicts for centuries, and any lessons it can claim for tolerance and multi-culturalism have been won as much (or more) with blood as with reason. Buruma also notes that radical Islam receives its impetus from feelings of social inferiority and unhinged identities that take the issues to political and then violent extremes in some cases. Buruma discusses how different European nations (Britain, France, and the Netherlands) each address issues of Islam, and even Christianity, quite differently. Britain follows a practice of broad tolerance and even promotion of Islamic culture (which in itself remains quite varied by region of origin), while France continues a practice a strict exclusion of religion from the public sphere. The Netherlands seems to have compromised somewhere in the middle, yet all three have suffered problems, including terrorism, from radicalized Moslem, most of whom are European-born young men who feel cut adrift in the dominant culture.
Buruma does a superb job of detailing the history and challenges of each of these cases that he addresses. His take on Europe includes detailed considerations of representative figures like Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Tariq Ramadan, each of whom raises special issues based on their cultural, national, and Western identities.
Buruma concludes (and really begins) with the idea that toleration is the key so long as all parties remain non-violent and play by the rules of peaceful, democratic discourse. Of course I can’t disagree. However, the deeper and perhaps unanswerable question remains one of how to prevent the radicalization of individuals to the point where they will murder in furtherance of their agendas. This problem has been with us for over a century (just limiting ourselves to the resistance to modern industrial society). For all of the formal regimes we can consider, none seems perfect to address this issue, but then, perhaps none exists.