At openDemocracy, Jonathan Gharraie and Farid Boussaid interview Ian Buruma on his intellectual beginnings, his most recent book, Taming the Gods, and the increasingly antagonistic tenor of debates on Islam, immigration, and democracy:
JG: The Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami wrote in an essay for The Nation that this debate is about Muslims, but not with them. Would you say that it is one of your aims to try to engage with people who have been excluded?
IB: Less so with this book than in Murder in Amsterdam where I went out of my way to talk to immigrants, whether they were religious or not, because their voices were rather muted. People would quote the murder victim, Theo Van Gogh himself, or the Dutch politicians or friends of Theo and so on. Nobody would bother to talk to the Dutch Moroccans and Turks they were discussing. Nobody asked for their views. It wasn’t so much that I wrote the book to try and influence the immigrants, but I certainly wanted their voices to be an important part of what I wrote.
FB: How would you characterise the debate as it stands now?
IB: I would say that positions have hardened. My efforts to avoid being polemical have become more difficult because the polemics now dominate the debate and they tend to divide everybody into friends and enemies.
FB: So would you say that moderation is not a virtue anymore?
IB: No. In fact, in the eyes of some people it shows weakness: it is seen as a cop-out. That, of course, is something that liberals have always been accused of. In Europe, the positions have hardened: in America, they are hardening. At the same time, there are still a lot of people who are trying to talk sense. There’s nothing else you can do.
JG: It seems that one of the main things that Paul Berman is objecting to in The Flight of the Intellectuals is your tone and the register of your language. This is something that you’ve written about yourself, particularly in your literary criticism. In Murder in Amsterdam you refer to an, “elevation of bluntness to a kind of moral ideal” which you see as being characteristically Dutch. Might this debate about Islam and democracy be about one’s tone of voice as much as anything else?
IB: Yes, but I don’t think that it’s only about that. It’s also about real positions that people have staked out. Berman objects to my position because he was himself on the Left. He was an anarchist at one point and he is used to taking very radical positions. This means that he views those who don’t agree with him as not simply people with different views, but as enemies – people who are either in bad faith, or unprincipled. To repeat, this is a traditional critique that radicals from either the Right or the Left of Liberals will make, because Liberals seem to them to be wishy-washy. Part of being Liberal is always to try to see the other side of the question. If you take a radical position, then to see the other side of the question is a sign of weakness and of not sticking to your principles.
Read the full interview here.