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Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents Hardcover – Feb 21 2010


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42 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Who plays by which rules? Feb. 21 2010
By Harry Eagar - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Alexis de Tocqueville thought that Islam and democracy were incompatible. The polemicist Ian Buruma declares in "Taming the Gods" that "Tocqueville's idea that Islam and democracy cannot survive together must be disproven."

It would be easier if there were any Islamic democracies, but Buruma, who revels in the gaudy but faintly ridiculous title of Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, tries.

First he examines whether democracy is compatible with any religion, finding that in America, for example, the two get along. He cites Tocqueville, approvingly this time, to the effect that "democracy in the United States could be established because Americans shared a Christian faith, specifically a Protestant faith, whose free agents observed clear boundaries between their churches and the democratic state."

Tocqueville was assured by various sectaries that they accepted toleration, and Buruma believes this, and Tocqueville may have believed it and even his informants may have believed they believed it. I grew up in Tennessee, and I don't believe it.

Tolerance survived in the America not because the various cults thought it good, but because there were 400 of them and they couldn't stand each other. Or as Samuel Eliot Morison put it: "The only way these sects of divers doctrine could be kept in a single political party, was by agreeing on toleration." At times and places where one sect dominated - as Connecticut in the 1800s, Indiana in the 1920s or Tennessee in the 1950s -- civil rights and free speech were hard to come by.

That early Americans thought political parties more important to preserve than even churchly dominance is a main theme of Morison's "Builders of the Bay Colony," which he attributes primarily to unplanned consequences of the way the New England charters were written. That America ended up with two political parties (and not 30) and that neither was captured by a religion is one of those things that we breathe in like air and don't think about, but it is unusual. (Buruma notes that Dutch politics, despite its origin in Europe's first religiously tolerant state, consists of a multitude of religious parties.) Nothing says America had to stay tolerant, and in 1930, when Morison wrote, the states of Indiana and Oklahoma had only recently purged their governments of violently intolerant Ku Klux Klan Christians.

I was shocked, as an adult trying to unlearn the lies about American history that I had heard in school, to learn that in the 1830s, the most vigorous defense of First Amendment rights to free speech and free press was mounted by Baptists, who felt themselves oppressed by Episcopalians and Congregationalists. I had grown up among Baptists, and I'd never met any who respected a free press. Nowadays, the sect that feels oppressed and puts out a magazine (Liberty) to defend free expression is the Seventh-day Adventists.

In my opinion, Tocqueville's statement will not have been proven correct until no sect feels the need to put out a magazine like Liberty. It is, obviously, not secularists who are making the Adventists feel put upon.

In the second section, Buruma presents the same dilemma to east Asia, and scouts the idea that religion has lived a separate existence from democracy there. Democracy has hardly had a long enough run there to make these conclusions impressive, even if correct.

However, nobody worries whether any significant number of devoted Buddhists or Christians are trying to overthrow democracy. (Hinduism may be an exception, but only in India, because it is not a universalizing cult, nor a monotheism. The universalizing, salvationist monotheisms are the dangers to liberty and democracy. Christians have already been tamed, except in Tonga.) Lots of people, however, wonder about Islam. The last third of the book is where the argument is intended to strike home.

Buruma aligns himself with the French accommodationist Olivier Roy and against the skeptics Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington in favor of the possibility of a democratic Islam. It would be easier to buy this if there were any majority Islamic states that were democratic, but there are not.

Turkey is not, although often claimed as the exception, and although a few (very few) Muslim places have had as many as two elections, it would be difficult to find an Islamic polity that could claim three in a row.

For people trying to establish the possibility of an Islamic democracy, Lebanon is the biggest obstacle. It was a democracy, more or less, with a population just under half Muslim. Given disparate growth rates, the Muslims could have dominated the government through the ballot box within a few years. They chose, instead, to destroy the country. The Syrian political scientist Bassam Tibi has said that Arabs are not interested in democracy. This may not be true of Christian Arabs, but it is too weak concerning Muslim Arabs, who are mostly hostile to democracy (assuming any have a clear idea what it might be, which our adventure in Iraq lays open to doubt).

It may be significant that when the USSR broke up, all the infidel republics turned democratic after a fashion, while all the Muslim "republics" became despotisms of medieval tenor. A better question than whether Islam is compatible with democracy is whether it is compatible with any sort of modern organization. (Lewis avers that monarchy has always been the accepted form of secular government in Muslim lands. Muslim monarchs were just jumped up bandit generals, and the leaders of most Muslim countries today still are, it is just no longer fashionable for them to style themselves m-l-k, malik, king.)

One quarter of the world's "nations" are predominantly Islamic in population, and of these about a tenth are failed states, with several more waiting in the wings to fail soon. The number of infidel failed states is close to zero (Zimbabwe, Congo, Haiti), although Cuba and North Korea and perhaps Mexico or Venezuela have a shot at it.

Buruma cites Roy to the effect that belief does not count, only following the rules matters. True, but there is more doubt than they will admit whether Muslims in general are prepared to follow the rule of law if it isn't Islamic law. (They have some serious problems even deciding on Islamic law among themselves.) Islam does not have a pope, as Buruma notes, but it does have a unified voice in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has often declared not only that western ideas of civil rights are unacceptable in Islamic governments (which we already knew), but that they must be abrogated in favor of Muslim prejudices in every land.

Furthermore, if actions rather than ideas are what count in a successful democracy (an idea I accept only in the most trivial sense), then we have to consider Muslim actions. We cannot just blow them off by observing, as Buruma does, that the Old Order Amish in America do not subscribe to many democratic, secular values. True, but there are not a billion Old Order Amish, they do not control any precincts, let alone nations, and they do not blow themselves up to make political points.

It would be helpful if, even in undemocratic Muslim states, there were some indication of tolerance for infidels, but this is hard to find. Many do not even permit infidel churches, or, if they do, public opinion approves of torching them. This is so even in Muslim states that have had a healthy dose of exposure to western political values, like Egypt, and - especially notable in this context, since it claims to be a democracy and has elections off and on -- Nigeria.

But it is suicide bombing that presents the most obvious behavior that would lead one to think that Huntington ("Clash of Civilizations") is on to something; or, as some anonymous blogger once said, Muslims do not know how to be a minority.

That Buruma has no real answer to this is evident from his cursory treatment of this question, which under his own terms of reference ought to deserve a chapter in itself. Although he says he scorns cultural relativism, in this case he embraces it, asking why westerners admired soldiers in war who undertook death-defying missions.

But this misstates what was done and what was admired. Western soldiers sometimes killed themselves in order to kill enemy soldiers, but they did not do so in order to blow up pizza parlors full of teenagers, and if they had, no one would have admired them for it.

The question was made very clear recently by the Jordanian suicide bomber Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who targeted CIA agents and left a message imploring other Muslims to do the same. This set Balawi apart from almost all suicide bombers, who kill at random, apparently for the joy of murder and/or for rewards in the afterlife.

And recall that, although they may fantasize about killing infidels, infidels tend to object to being blown up, so the Muslim suiciders overwhelmingly kill other Muslims. This is a behavior that writers like Buruma need to consider.

"Taming the Gods" is well worth reading, because Buruma asks some good questions, such as whether democratic states should cultivate "moderate" believers. He thinks not, although if the moderates are not cultivated, it is hard to see why they would consider the state "theirs too."

But if read, it needs to be read carefully. Many of his statements are simply wrong, such as that extremist Islamism is religious, not cultural. It is religious -- that is the probem -- but it is cultural. The yearning of bin Laden to reoccupy al-Andalus (Iberia) is a cultural, not a strictly religious, feeling.

But Buruma sometimes switches the pea under the shell, especially in his final words, which are:

"So if one truly believes in the separation of church and state, which all democrats should, a certain discretion about the religious beliefs of others is in order. . . . It means what Olivier Roy meant when he spoke about leaving theology to the believers and concentrating on the rules of the democratic game."

You have to watch sharply to see the pea slide under the new shell: Persons holding western values do not (except for a tiny band of evangelists) interfere with the theology of the Muslims. Roy has it exactly backwards. It is the theologians who are trying to change the rules of democracy.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Slim volume on extensive topic April 4 2010
By Niklas Anderberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This slender book reads like Usain Bolt. With his trademark no-nonsense style, Buruma clocks in at just under 125 full pages. He is light-footed without, however, being lightweight. His arguments are solid and clearly formulated. The three essays contained within discuss secularism versus belief in the public space. The first is on the separation of state and church in the West, the second on religious authority in China and Japan and the third deals with the Islamic challenge in Europe. In a bird's-eye view, Tocqueville, Voltaire and Confucius as well as Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan march past. Buruma's perspective is liberal, exemplified by his emphasis on distinguishing between believers and people prepared to kill for their gods. A liberal democracy must be able to separate potential terrorists from law-abiding believers, even fundamentalists. Not shared values but shared rules are paramount in a democratic society. Non-believers often ask why they should show respect for religious beliefs. For Buruma this is not a problem, but he observes that this doesn't mean that you have to admire them. With Rushdie, he argues that it's permissible to attack beliefs but not believers. This implies that no one is beyond criticism or above the law (as in preventing the use of condoms or encouraging violent acts, such as the stoning of allegedly adulterous women). As long as you abide by the democratic rules, you should be regarded, and treated, as a full citizen. Even some public funding of religious practices and education can, in Buruma's view, be defended, i.e. it gives the state a certain amount of control (p. 123).
He has reservations against Jürgen Habermas and his idea of a Kulturkampf between secularists and multiculturalists. This might have a reverse effect and polarize positions rather than promote solutions. In the same vein as the French scholar Olivier Roy, who thinks liberal society should leave theology to the believers and concentrate on the rules of the democratic game, Buruma ends by quoting Confucius: "Let us leave the spirits aside, until we know how best to serve men."
Whatever your views, Taming the Gods is an enjoyable as well as a thought-provoking read. An interesting comparison can be made with the position taken by Austin Dacey in his The Secular Conscience - Why Belief Belongs in Public Life (Prometheus Books, 2008). My only complaint is that it is a bit short. Without having to be the sort of marathon Charles Taylor has delivered, one could have wished for at few laps more.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Some essays insightful, but others rather weak April 12 2010
By J. A Magill - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Riding the wave of his last hit, Ian Buruma's "Taming the Gods" Religion and Democracy on Three Continents// offers three essays examining the interplay of politics and faith. The first, "Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals" compares the state of religion in the United States versus Western Europe, the latter having grown progressively more secular while in the former it remains a powerful force in the public sphere, arguably controlling a major political party. His second, "Oriental Wisdom," considers the role of religion in the political evolution of China and Japan. Both essays are a tad cursory, albeit well written and occasionally insightful. The third, "Enlightenment Values," however is clearly meant to generate sparks, as Buruma dives into the issue de jure, Islam and the West.

Buruma argues that claims of an Islamic "threat" as overblown, anti-immigrant sentiments. To the degree it exists, he sees it as a political threat akin to Germany's Red Army Faction, to be dealt with by similar means. Yet his argument proves unpersuasive on several fronts. For example, over and again Buruma analogizes Muslim fundamentalists to Christian separatists like Mennonites and the Amish, pointing out the latter's successful coexistence with liberal democracy. There's a sad intellectual dishonesty in such comparisons.

Devoting considerable space to the Salman Rushdie fatwa, Buruma ignores the murderous riots sparked by the Mohammad cartoons, thus failing to consider the self censorship which is now normative among cowed publishing houses and media outlets. He gives short shrift to questions about reactionary threads found even in "liberal" Islam, with writers such as Reza Aslan painting the Prophet's 7th Century Arabian community as an egalitarian Utopia. Further, he fails to to consider the demand that freedom of speech should be trumped to protect religion from "defamation." The question of liberal democracy and Islam's relations continues to rage, with strong arguments on both sides, yet by speaking over his opponents, Buruma's work proves thin stuff.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Three (middling) lecturettes July 18 2010
By Agnostic500 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The title of this short book gives it away: the author, a noted public intellectual, believes in the wisdom of "taming" religion, if democracy is to thrive. To prove his thesis he canters through three continents and more civilisations, trying to trace their experience in dealing with religion: the USA, Europe (however defined), China, Japan, and Muslim countries. The outcome is necessarily little more than "intellectual tourism".

Concerning the "West" - the author, having set himself the task of studying "experience" ends up providing an overview of political thought on the matter instead: his is a sketch of what Hobbes, Humes, Spinoza, Jefferson, Tocqueville, De Maistre, and all the others had so say about the relationship between Church and State. Intellectual discourse is fine, but how has it played out in practice? Here the author is mostly silent - as if all that mattered was ideas, and the world was driven by them, rather than interest (it is usually the other way around). The author hints at the 'Dutch system of pillars', but it should have been better contrasted with the German Kulturkampf or the French laïcité - just to mention two continental political programs.

Even within the narrower confines, his outline of the history of Western political ideas is superficial and incomplete. Catholic political thought is hardly mentioned (though its pretensions, spanning thousand years from Gregory VII to Benedict XVI, are much alive today), and even on the Protestant political thought he ignores Erastus and his followers, who so much informed the emergence of "toleration" in the Dutch countries (see Nelson The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought).

China's experience is seen through Western eyes (Matteo Ricci, the French sinofiles) - or after having been tainted by Occidentalism (Taiping rebellion, Sun Ya Tsen etc.), rather than through Chinese eyes. The same can be said about Japan, where political Shinto was not autochthonous. Confucianism may have been an attempt at using 'values' both to stabilise a political system and to drive reform, even revolution, and thus provide a dynamic framework. But Chinese history is too much influenced by contingency (from concubines to climate change - see Brook The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (History of Imperial China)) to provide a useful answer.

The most disappointing chapter is the one on Islam. It mostly deals with the Islamic diasporas in Europe (and even that in fragmentary fashion), as if their experience is all there is to say about Islam worldwide. But is the murder of Theo van Gogh even indicative of the plight of the Islamic diaspora in the Netherlands? Or the hubbub over Salman Rushdie in the UK about Islam there? We have here a series of exercises in pars pro toto, that fundamentally distort the situation on the ground. What one would like here is a sense of proportion, rather than sweeping generalisations from small incidents. The author should believe his own insights when he argues on pg. 101: "...the pull of religious ideology is not usually a theological one but has everything to do with political rage."

To conclude: on pg. 87 the author writes:"...shared values are not essential for a democracy to function, as long as citizens abide by the laws..." begs the issue. The question is not one of 'abiding'; rather one of 'setting' the rules. Given humanity's fundamental diversity there is a need to go from many views to one - a rule that all can abide by. Arrow's impossibility theorem shows this to be inherently difficult. 'Values', mostly enshrined in ethical or religious beliefs, are a 'soft' (and traditional) way to approach a consensus. In addition, 'values' are also a bulwark - albeit a limited one - against power. I'm not sure that we are closer to "taming the Gods" of whatever stripe after taking this three-stop intellectual tour.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Worth the time and $ May 1 2010
By William Steding - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If we accept Harold Lasswell's definition of politics: "who gets what, when, how" and adopt it to religion - who believes what and why - Ian Buruma offers an adroit analysis of the inevitable tension and contradictions that result from the collision between the two with a nuanced understanding of temporal, geographic, and cultural variability. His rendering, while offering numerous points to quibble, places the issue of religion and politics at center stage; a position it has certainly earned. If the test of work like this is the amount of discussion it spawns, I am certain Buruma's will be judged a success.
While he uses broad strokes and confines himself to primary philosophical colors, he has framed an artist's concept of a subject that invites others to pick a place on the canvas to add both detail and hue. In this manner his work is a starting point, not a conclusion, to be considered and referred to by those who dare wade into similar waters. For this we must both congratulate and thank him for his work.


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