A review of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, by Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma, a professor at Bard College and regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, has written a provocative, exasperating new book on making religion safe for democracy. "When reflecting on the problems of religion and democracy," Buruma writes, "the main issue is how to stop irrational passions from turning violent." For Buruma religion is an inherently irrational passion. As a result, defending the tolerance and pluralism of modern secular democracies requires finding ways to pacify religion and keep it politically benign.

In search of guidance, Buruma examines centuries of religious-secular conflict in Japan, China, Europe, and America. Rather than showing the best ways of "taming the gods," however, the wide scope of Buruma's inquiry makes clear only that reconciling religious ardor and political order is extremely difficult. Worse, it suggests that his project is fundamentally misbegotten.

Buruma's discussion of Asian history, for example, is reliably equivocal on the desirability and feasibility of religious tolerance. Among the first acts of the allied authorities reordering Japan after World War II was to make Emperor Hirohito renounce his claim to divinity. This stipulation was so successful that Shinto and Buddhist sects spread as religious life flourished in post-war Japan, a time known as the "Rush Hour of the Gods." Happily, these new gods stood in no need of taming.

When Buruma turns his attention to China, however, he is far more fearful of an unfettered religious marketplace. After surveying the nation's dark, bloody history of millenarian cults, he suggests that the Chinese government's ban of the Falun Gong was necessary to tame the gods. "Even if one does not condone the government ban," he argues, "it is doubtful that political movements emanating from charismatic groups would offer the quickest route to a democratic transformation." To the contrary, he writes, such groups "are more likely to result in yet another cycle of Chinese history, of millenarian hope, followed by oppression."

And yet Buruma concludes his analysis of Chinese history with an unexpected plea: the "political masters of the Chinese republic must renounce their authoritarian claims on the moral and spiritual lives of its citizens." Inexplicably, he calls for the Chinese government to set aside its fears of disorder, despite his belief that liberalization might well set in motion another cycle of murderous religious fanaticism. We are left wondering whether the author is a reluctant Hobbesian or a committed Lockean liberal. Which takes precedence, the imperative of order or the respect for inalienable rights?

The suspicion that Buruma can't or won't grapple seriously with the tensions between the preconditions that make liberal society possible, and the imperatives for governmental restraint that make it liberal, deepens when he turns his attention to Europe. One might suppose that he would favor a relatively heavy-handed approach to Muslims, given his thoughts on the efficacy of coercion in Asia. Buruma, however, opposes the French ban on headscarves, which he regards as hysterical and illiberal. Unlike many French citizens, he is even untroubled by the illiberal values such headscarves represent. "As long as [Muslims] play by the rules of free speech, free expression, independent judiciaries, and free elections," he explains, "they are democratic citizens." Although he would be troubled by citizens who manage to pass illiberal laws through normal democratic means, he regards this danger as merely hypothetical, assuming plausibly that orthodox Muslims will remain a minority in Europe for the foreseeable future, thereby assuring religious and personal freedoms.

Buruma's tolerance of illiberal beliefs, however, still leaves the problem of violent Muslim radicals, who do not play by democratic rules. These radical revolutionaries must be marginalized and rendered less attractive to disaffected Muslims. As he puts it, "containment of revolutionary violence will only be successful if the revolutionaries are isolated and deprived of sympathy from the nonviolent believers."

To achieve this sensible end he argues for a better understanding of radical Islam's appeal, making the provocative point that the lure of radical Islam is not always religious or theological. Political rage and a longing for identity, he argues, are the forces driving many would-be radicals. In the controversy over Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses, for instance, Buruma contends that many of those "who called for [Rushdie's] head" were not all that devout. Instead, they were angry and disaffected from the socialist Left. Their rejection of socialism left these militants searching for a new universalistic creed and a sense of self. In this respect, Buruma thinks that the growth of Islamic militancy in Europe, like the rise of Black Power and the Nation of Islam in America, has more to do with identity politics than ideology.

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But if this is right, how do we westerners stop giving offense to angry Muslims, and stop driving them into the arms of violent revolutionaries? For Buruma, a big part of the answer seems to be a paradoxical sort of self-restraint: the best course for those concerned about the incompatibility of Islam and liberal democracy is to stop expressing those concerns. It's the kind of talk that makes trouble, provoking devout Muslims and giving them a reason to listen to violent radicals. A "certain discretion about the religious beliefs of others is in order," he suggests, if Europeans are to "isolate the revolutionaries from the believers."

In other words, Europeans should stop blaming violent extremism on "the ‘backwardness' of Islam or the intolerance of the devout." We must condemn violence without criticizing Islam. Buruma is effectively telling the likes of Salmon Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to shut up—not because they're wrong, necessarily, when they argue that Islam and Western democracy are essentially incompatible.

Refusing to make a direct causal link between Islam and violence, Buruma emphasizes again and again that revolutionary violence is driven by political rage rather than theology. "The challenge posed by Muslims in Europe," he concludes, "is not cultural, civilizational, or even, in the end, religious. It is social and political." The most he will grant to the position that Muslim terrorism is at root a theological and religious problem is that there "is something to be said" for it.

But what is there to be said for—and against—it? Does he sincerely believe that Islamic radicalism is not fundamentally a religious problem, or is he merely exercising "discretion" to avoid making a bad situation worse by driving more angry Muslims into the arms of extremists? If the latter is true, he emerges as a surprisingly illiberal thinker, an "intellectual" who would rather keep the peace than tell the truth. The gods must be tamed either by coercion (in Japan and China) or by self-censorship (in Europe).

Why does he place so little trust in the possibilities that liberal democrats can defend their regime forcefully and legitimately, or that the experience of life in a plural democracy will moderate the views and actions of religious zealots, rendering liberal democracy more feasible? The answer seems connected to his belief that all religious movements are deeply irrational and ultimately hostile to secular society. The single exception he allows is the American civil rights movement, since it "turned…religious faith to secular ends." This "exception" winds up proving the rule, however, because he doesn't think the civil rights movement was all that religious. He grants that Martin Luther King was someone of deep faith, whose "rhetoric…owed a great deal to religious traditions," but that's as far as he'll go. Buruma even claims that "organized religion" was not a "major political force" in the United States between 1920 and 1970.

But, of course, the civil rights movement grew out of well-organized Baptist churches. Black activists, moreover, were inspired by something more than soaring rhetoric. They believed that God was truly on their side and intervening in history. As historian David Chappell argued in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (2004), it was this "irrational," fundamentalist faith that held them together in the face of attack dogs and fire hoses. Chappell even contends that the civil rights movement is best understood as a religious revival with political overtones, not unlike earlier great awakenings.

In addition to downplaying the role of orthodox Christian belief in the civil rights movement, Buruma makes no mention of organized religion's central role in America's abolitionist movement. He does emphasize, however, that Christianity was used to justify slavery. For Buruma, religious extremism is simply something that must be tamed. He does not realize that the advancement of human rights and democracy has often depended on religious zealots.

As these examples suggest, his discussion of America is especially disappointing. Buruma begins his indictment of religion in America by drawing heavily on Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis's famous novel that recounts the life of a hypocritical, huckstering preacher. It occurs briefly to Buruma that Lewis's novel might paint a less than accurate portrait of American evangelicalism. He allows, for instance, that Lewis was not a "subtle novelist," which is true in the sense that Bill Clinton was not shy around girls. But then Buruma quickly reassures readers: "Elmer Gantry…seems like a crude caricature until one has seen his real-life colleagues on television." And there you have it. Buruma's perspective on American evangelicalism has been shaped largely by a bigoted novelist and television. He fails to consult any serious scholarly treatments of American evangelicalism, except for a few passing references to Frank Lambert's Religion in American Politics (2008).

Buruma's paltry knowledge of American evangelicalism makes it easy for him to imagine that his own prejudices about its role in encouraging intolerance are factually sound. He approvingly notes that the Scopes Trial made "holy-rolling fundamentalists look foolish," apparently unaware that William Jennings Bryan opposed the textbook under dispute in the trial partly because it promoted scientific racism. Buruma casually accuses Southern Baptists of leaving the Democratic Party because they were "shocked by the emancipation of blacks." Yet the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of desegregation in 1954, with little opposition from its laity. Many Baptists, of course, did eventually embrace the Republican Party during the 1980s, but for reasons that were about the "culture wars" rather than the settled questions of segregation and voting rights.

Finally, Buruma blames America's misguided war in Iraq on "evangelical enthusiasm," a sure indication of religion's ability to "disturb human society." Yet Michael Lindsay's excellent book, Faith in the Halls of Powers (2008), finds that evangelicals inside the Bush White House primarily pushed humanitarian causes abroad, while ordinary evangelicals lobbied for more foreign aid to Africa rather than war in Iraq. Nicholas Kristoff, the liberal New York Times columnist, has even called American evangelicals the "new internationalists" because of their remarkable charity and political activism abroad.

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Buruma's determination to have it both ways on the right relation of religion and democracy leaves him unable, finally, to have it any coherent way. Despite his contempt for American evangelicals he recognizes they "still profess to believe in democracy," something manifestly not true about much of the Muslim world. On the fundamental question of preserving tolerant, plural democracies, then, American evangelicals agree with Buruma in a way devout Muslims do not. Yet he subjects the former to shrill, poorly informed denunciations while contorting himself and the facts to practice "discretion" when discussing the latter.

Part of the explanation for this asymmetry comes from his journalism, where he has commented on "bien-pensantliberals, who were quick to denounce any criticism of minorities as racism." This sounds like a description of others, but is a good summary of Buruma's own bien-pensant liberalism. It requires him to: applaud the civil rights movement, which forces him to pretend it was only faintly religious; condemn America's Christian Right, which forces him to pretend it poses a threat to democracy; and insist that European multiculturalism must be infinitely accommodating, which forces him to blame Islamic radicalism on everything but Islam. Given his overriding concern with stopping irrational passions from turning violent, the book Ian Buruma should have written was Taming Allah, if only his analysis did not condemn such a project as one long provocation.